The Trump administration is hellbent on adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census form. Democrats are passionate about stopping this affront to the Constitution, which calls for an accurate account of everyone living in the country. And they will have a path to do it if they regain the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives on November 6.
This is important because a new census question about citizenship or legal status will fuel fears about cooperating with a government survey, and inevitably result in an undercount that will penalize states like California that have a large illegal population.
The question could cost California several congressional seats, along with federal benefits that are distributed according to the census numbers. And that’s the point. The GOP is using the census as another tool to reshape and gerrymander power, and the Democrats have been almost powerless to stop it with Republicans controlling Congress.
That would change if the Democrats regain the House in November. The Daily Beast has learned that blocking the citizenship question is among the top priorities embraced by the House and Senate Democratic leadership, up there with protecting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act).
Here’s how it works: Democrats would attach a “limiting amendment” to an appropriations bill, which is must-pass legislation to keep the government open. It would have to be timely—early in the next Congress, or even in the lame duck session, according to veteran congressional staff.
The only train out of the station is the final fiscal 2019 bills. There are three of them, Foreign Operations, newly complicated by the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and congressional pressure to stall Saudi arms deals; Department of Homeland Security, where lack of money for Trump’s wall is a major point of contention; and Commerce/Justice/Science, which include the census and immigration enforcement. All are operating under what’s known as a continuing resolution which runs out on December 7. Trump has been threatening to shut down the government on December 8 if he doesn’t get his wall money.
The 3 bills are likely to be wrapped up into a single “minibus” (instead of omnibus), and that’s where the fight could come. Democrats want more money for the census, which is woefully underfunded, making an undercount of migrants and minorities more likely. If Democrats gain the majority In the November election, they can add a “limiting amendment” to the Commerce/Justice/Science appropriations saying a certain amount of money will be allotted to the 2020 census provided there is not a question on citizenship.
The amendment has to be on a bill, and it has to pass by next spring when census forms go to the printer.
“It is a legitimate path because the Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to determine how the census must be taken—and it is well within the purview of members of Congress, no matter the party, to pursue a change in census questions,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, told the Daily Beast. How successful the Democrats are will depend on the post-November political climate, and how far Trump wants to push a fight over this particular amendment on a must-pass bill.
Republicans have had their eye on adding a citizenship and legal status question to the census for some time. Louisiana Republican Clay Higgins wanted to introduce an amendment to the 2018 fiscal appropriations bill in 2017, but the GOP-controlled Rules committee in the House denied the amendment. Census advocacy groups, who had lobbied hard against it, congratulated themselves on its defeat that year. But it was later revealed in court documents that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had decided as early as March 2017 to add a citizenship question, and key Republicans knew that. They didn’t need to go the congressional route, knowing the bureaucratic stealth approach was open to them.
That blew up when New York’s attorney general, together with 17 other attorneys general and six mayors, filed a lawsuit to prevent the administration from adding the citizenship question. The courts have allowed the lawsuit to proceed, and Ross and Justice Department official John Gore have been ordered to give depositions about the reasoning behind their actions. Gore, who is acting head of the Justice Department’s civil right division, drafted a letter saying citizenship information is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The case is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gary Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation, which promotes government accountability and transparency, told the Daily Beast, “We bemoan the fact that the census is political; and now it’s part of the election, it’s gotten worse.” He points to the Missouri Senate race where Republican challenger Josh Hawley points to Democrat Claire McCaskill’s opposition to adding a citizenship question to the census as a reason why voters should oust her. In an interview with the Washington Times, Hawley said, “Sen. McCaskill would love to give more representation to California. “That’s what will happen.”
“Let’s have a fair and accurate account, and let the chips fall where they may,” says Bass. “If a lot of people see the census as political, rural voters who go more Republican could stay away. They [the administration] could be undermining their own objectives.”