Census lobbying continues amid concerns about citizenship question, funding

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via flickr – US Census Bureau

The U.S. census has been performed every decade since 1790. But tensions boiled over in Washington this week about the Trump administration’s efforts to add a new question — and the billions of federal dollars over the next decade that will be affected by it.

While onlookers await the Supreme Court’s ruling on the legality of the decision, lobbyists from research and advocacy groups are also making their case to the Census Bureau with the hopes of at least influencing the implementation of proposed changes.

The decennial census is a constitutionally mandated population survey used to determine the allocation of federal funds across communities and the boundaries of congressional districts during redistricting. The Trump administration announced in 2017 that it planned to add a question about citizenship to the survey. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the move was necessary to help the administration enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Not everyone was convinced of that rationale, though.

Half a dozen groups sued the administration on the basis that asking about citizenship might discourage Latinos, immigrants and members of other minority groups from filling out the survey. If this were the case, the count would be skewed, and the federal funding and political representation associated with it would not be apportioned equally to all Americans. Several studies have found the question would lead to an undercount of approximately 4 million people.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in April and is likely to release its decision later this month.

Then, at the end of May, came the evidence found on the hard drive of longtime Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, who died last August. Research the political consultant conducted in 2015 concluded in clear terms that adding such a question would benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

Hofeller certainly had GOP strategists’ ear: The Republican National Committee paid him $127,000 for “redistricting consulting services” during the 2010 election cycle, and an additional $64,000 on the issue in 2011.

With the revelation of Hofeller’s writings, Democrats are eager to determine whether his ideas swayed the Trump administration’s policy. However, without documentation of how the Department of Commerce decided to add the citizenship question, no one can definitely say whether Hofeller’s work was the reason.

The discovery also added urgency to subpoenas for documents pertaining to the decision the House Oversight Committee had issued in April, but the Trump administration claimed executive privilege Wednesday and declined to release them. The committee voted the same day to hold Ross and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, though Democrats signaled Thursday that they are more likely to file a lawsuit over the documents than hold two cabinet members in criminal contempt.

House Democrats aren’t the only ones upset about the proposed addition of the citizenship question to the census.

Groups that have lobbied the Census Bureau opposing the citizenship question this year include the Insights Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, the League of Women Voters of the U.S., Monterey County, Calif., the NAACP and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.

“Barring swift intervention, data from the 2020 Census will be inaccurate and incomplete. For the next decade it will make political representation less democratic, misdirect the flow of federal funding, and force businesses, policymakers, scientists, and the country to rely on erroneous population data,” said Alex Padilla, NALEO commission co-chairman in a statement.

The Bureau announced earlier this week that it will begin testing the effect of the citizenship question on response rates through a trial questionnaire sent to nearly half a million households. The results of that experiment will help the Bureau determine the number of staffers it needs to track down the households that do not respond to the official survey in 2020.

More employees allows the Bureau to be more thorough, potentially mitigating the undercount that the new question is expected to create. To hire more employees, however, the Bureau needs more funding — so several of the groups that lobbied in opposition of the citizenship question have also lobbied for increased funding for the 2020 census. The Bureau has said it expects the census to cost $15.6 billion.

Aside from the citizenship issue, why else do groups lobby on the census?

The Census Bureau is also tasked with measuring trade, so it is the target of lobbying for organizations such as the Pacific Coast Council/Customs Brokers, the World Shipping Council and the American Association of Importers and Exporters. The American Library Association has also lobbied the Bureau this year — because the census will be available online for the first time in 2020, libraries expect to see increased demand for their technology services.

Several bills about the census have also been introduced this legislative session. The 2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy Act (H.R. 732) was sponsored by a number of Democratic lawmakers and would require the executive branch to notify Congress of planned changes to census methodology. The Census Accuracy Act of 2019 (H.R. 1320), sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), would codify the citizenship question into law. A few liberal causes lobbied on H.R. 732, while no one has lobbied on H.R. 1320. Neither piece of legislation is expected to pass.

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