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WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was roasted before a House of Representatives committee Wednesday in a hearing that lasted more than six hours. It was not a roast of the comedic variety, however, with Ross repeatedly scorched by Democrats as he struggled to explain why he sought the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Ross was on the ropes for much of his testimony before the House Oversight Committee, but the knockout blow did not come until the seventh hour of the hearing, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., finally had the chance to interrogate Ross, who is 52 years her senior. Ocasio-Cortez, who has been in Congress a little more than two months, effectively summarized the Democrats’ central argument against Ross: that in putting the question on the census, Ross did not consult with U.S. Census Bureau experts but instead took advice from voter-suppression specialists aligned with President Trump.
“It’s all there in black and white,” Ocasio-Cortez said of a July 2017 email to Ross from Kris Kobach, the then Kansas secretary of state who has made a career of voter suppression. The email said that adding a citizenship question was “essential,” presumably so that congressional apportionment would prove more favorable to Republicans.
Ocasio-Cortez then asked if Ross spoke about the citizenship question after that email.
“I have no recollection of speaking to him again after that,” Ross answered.
She quickly noted that Ross and Kobach spoke again later that same month, referencing a ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where New York, along with more than a dozen other states, sued to block the inclusion of the question. (The judge in that case, Jesse Furman, ruled against Ross earlier this year, though the broader legal battle over the citizenship question continues.)
Following that damaging exchange, Ocasio-Cortez asked if Ross ever brought Kobach’s concerns to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is part of the Department of Commerce.
Referring again to the legal proceedings from the Southern District, Ocasio-Cortez showed that Ross had, in fact, discussed Kobach’s proposal for a citizenship question in September 2017.
“Do you recall anything about that meeting?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
Ross said he did not.
Ocasio-Cortez also argued that Ross had not met the congressional reporting requirements mandated by law, because the new citizenship question was materially different from the one that last appeared on the census, in 1950. This seemed like the kind of appeal to constitutional authority that could resonate with some conservatives.
“Why are we violating the law to include any question whatsoever in the 2020 census?” said Ocasio-Cortez, banging her fist on the podium for emphasis.
When the young Democrat finished with her questioning, an exasperated Ross looked to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who chairs the committee.
“I believe she is out of time, chairman,” Ross practically pleaded.
Cummings instructed him to answer anyway.
“I don’t have any need to respond, sir,” answered a defeated-sounding Ross.
Seated next to Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., followed with her own sharp interrogation of Ross. She argued that while Ross claimed to be a supporter of an accurate census, the inclusion of a citizenship question would effectively undermine its accuracy. She also noted that the information technology division of the Census Bureau was “severely understaffed,” citing a report by the Government Accountability Office.
Pressley asked about potential risks to the census resulting from a thin rank of information technology professionals.
“I believe you’re out of time, ma’am,” Ross answered.
Throughout the day, Ross faced repeated accusations of dishonesty and obfuscation. In his forceful opening remarks, Cummings lit into the Commerce secretary, charging that the former corporate raider — who has been accused of exaggerating his wealth and not fully disclosing foreign investments — “engaged in a secret campaign" from his first days in the Trump administration to put the “unconstitutional” citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Cummings also shredded the administration’s stated rationale for doing so. “I do not know anyone who truly believes that the Trump administration is interested in enhancing the Voting Rights Act,” Cummings said, referencing the rationale most often proffered by Republicans. “This administration has done everything in its power to suppress the vote, not to help people exercise their right to vote.”
Critics believe that the addition of the question — which asks the respondent if he or she is an American citizen — will serve only to depress response rates in immigrant communities because of fears of deportation. That could result in an undercount, of Latino immigrants in particular. Because those immigrants often live in Democratic states like New York and California, that undercount could result in lower federal funding for certain programs, as well as changes in the number of congressional districts allotted to states. There would be similar shifts in state and municipal representation. All such changes would likely favor Republicans.
Democrats have long wanted to know how Ross came to decide on including the citizenship question, which has appeared on the American Community Survey in recent years (previous that, it was on the long form census, which went out to many fewer Americans than the short form, before being eliminated in 2010 by President Barack Obama).
Because the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the census question in April, Republicans argued it was improper to hold a congressional hearing, which would be tantamount to interference. To make that argument, they cited a Supreme Court order from October that effectively shielded Ross from questioning in the myriad lawsuits brought against him in the citizenship question matter.
Democrats sharply disagreed. “We’re an independent branch of government, and it's time to start acting like it,” said Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., another House newcomer who appeared eager to take on Ross.
Ross tried to portray his decision on the inclusion of the citizenship question as the result of a “detailed review” absent of political consideration. “I have not approached this as a partisan matter,” he said as he was being gently questioned by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., one of President Trump’s most reliable supporters in the House. In his prepared remarks, Ross said that the question was included entirely from direction of the Department of Justice, which made a “formal written request for reinstatement of a citizenship question” in a Dec. 12, 2017, letter. The Justice official who worked on the citizenship question, John Gore, is a Republican operative who has long worked on voter suppression efforts (that is, in support of them).
Evidence shows that, contrary to that assertion, Ross intensely interested in the citizenship question as early as the winter of 2017. In May of that year, he wrote in an email, “I am mystified why nothing have been done in response to my months-old request that we include the citizenship question.” He spoke about the citizenship question with Steve Bannon, then the White House chief political strategist, and Kobach, the former head of a Trump administration panel investigating voter fraud. Mark Neuman, a member of the Trump transition team, appears to have acted as a go-between among the different parties.
At Thursday’s hearing, Ross appeared, at times, evasive, unconvincing and confused under the unrelenting Democratic assault. “"Were you trained by your attorneys to dodge these questions?” an irate Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., asked at one point. On several occasions, Ross cited the fact that he had turned over 8,700 pages of documents. In response to a number of questions, he cited either confidentiality or executive privilege, though it is not clear that the latter applies in his case of a departmental secretary.
“It may be confidential, but it’s not privileged,” Pressley said of Ross’s communications, citing those with Gore of the Department of Justice in particular.
The questioning seemed to flummox Ross on more than one occasion, suggesting that he is no longer the “killer” once celebrated by Trump.
“That’s a very lengthy question sir,” Ross said at one point in response to Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a Harvard-trained lawyer. Later, he and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., sparred over an email from August 2017 in which Ross appeared to be complaining about opposition to the citizenship question. The existence of the email seemed to show that Ross was involved in the matter long before any action from Justice.
Asked by Wasserman Schultz for an explanation, Ross said that the email was “filled with typographical errors.” He then cited one of those errors as evidence that the email had been written quickly. The significance of that point was not clear, at least not to the visibly annoyed Florida congresswoman.
“You are just continuing to stonewall,” Wasserman Schultz said sharply.
It was hard to tell whether Ross’s approach was calculated or not, whether his long-winded answers showed strategic thinking.
“Well, you’re not prepared,” sputtered Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., in frustration, as she attempted to extract from Ross yes-or-no answers on whether he had read the opinions of experts, including former U.S. Census Bureau heads, on the potential dangers of introducing citizenship questions. (It appeared, for the most part, that he had not.)
Democrats complicated matters by introducing, in the midst of the Ross testimony, their notes from an interview with Gore, the Justice official, which was conducted earlier this month. Gore told the committee that in the fall of 2017, a Commerce lawyer “had a memorandum on the citizenship question hand-delivered to Mr. Gore’s office, along with a handwritten note that also discussed the citizenship question.” Ross would not say what was in the memorandum, or why it was delivered to the Department of Justice. The mere existence of the memorandum, however, seemed to contradict his notion that he exerted no pressure to have the citizenship question added.
Republicans did have simplicity on their side, insofar as it seems only like common sense for a nation to count its citizens (the U.S. Constitution does mandate a count, but says nothing of whether the counted need be citizens or not). In fact, common sense was invoked frequently by Ross’s Republican supporters, who bolstered him whenever the Commerce secretary’s energy seemed to flag. They also invoked the immigration-related issues that are central to Trump’s appeal.
“This is the basic stuff of a sovereign nation,” said an outraged Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas.
“I mean, for the life of me, I do not know why the Democrats don’t want to know how many citizens are in the United States of America," said Rep. Jordan, who rescued the increasingly listless Ross a number of times throughout the day.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., pointed out that the first census was administered by Thomas Jefferson. “This administration should be given credit for following Thomas Jefferson's footsteps, should it not?” he asked. Moments, later, Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat from the U.S. Virgin Islands, pointed out that Jefferson owned slaves and, as such, was not the ideal model for the 21st century.
Ross, who fell out of favor with Trump long ago, did little to try to explain why the citizenship question was necessary. That only managed to infuriate Democrats. None was more open in his anger than Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who let loose with a diatribe. “You lied to Congress,” he fumed, voice rising, “you misled the American people and you are complicit in the Trump administration’s intent to suppress the growing political power of the nonwhite population. You have zero credibility and you should, in my opinion, resign.”
Ross did not know what to do with this. “Is there a question in there, sir?” he asked. He then asked for a break.
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