Frustrated congressional Democrats accused the Trump administration Friday of politicizing the 2020 Census after a Justice Department official declined to answer questions on how the administration came to include a question asking people their citizenship status.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said he had wanted more information about the administration’s rationale for the question. At a hearing Friday, committee Democrats said the question would have a chilling effect on responses from immigrant communities and others suspicious of government.
“Many individual citizens as well as non-citizens — including legal permanent residents — are fearful about giving their personal data to the government, particularly in the current political climate,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat. “These fears were escalated recently by the DOJ’s request to include the citizenship question on the 2020 census.”
The hearing witness, John M. Gore, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, said he could not respond to specific inquiries about the process, citing pending litigation. Several groups, including a group of voters in Prince George’s County, are challenging the question in court, saying that it would hamper the Census, which is required by the Constitution.
Cummings appeared to grow annoyed when Gore said his testimony was limited by “the ongoing litigation.”
“We have a job to do. We conduct parallel investigations all the time,” the Baltimore lawmaker said. “Your job is to answer our questions.”
Cummings asked Gore whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions was involved in shaping the question.
When Gore said he could not answer, Cummings shouted: “I asked you did you talk to your boss! You mean you’re going to tell me that you can’t answer a question as to whether you talked to your boss who we pay?”
Gore said the question is necessary to gather information to enforce the Voting Rights Act, designed to safeguard the electoral process against racial discrimination. The Justice Department said it needs “a reliable calculation” of voting-age populations in areas where voting rights violations are suspected.
Cummings said the Trump administration has not been known to aggressively enforce the Voting Rights Act.
President Donald J. Trump has called for more aggressive immigration enforcement to reduce the numbers of undocumented immigrants in the nation.
“Do you understand why we might be skeptical?” Cummings asked.
Gore said the department was committed to enforcing the act, and has done just that. He said individual responses to the Census cannot be shared and suggested that people would not be harmed by answering the citizenship question.
“Whether you are a citizen or not doesn’t tell you a lot about their immigration status,” Gore said.
Committee Democrats sought a subpoena to compel Gore to answer their questions or face being cited for contempt of Congress. But the motion — by Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York — failed on a 22-15 vote.
“This was the Republicans’ own witness, and they pretended like they did not even know what a subpoena was — that only Jack Bauer could somehow pry information out of this administration,” Cummings said afterward. Bauer is a fictional character on the “24” television series.
“House Republicans — in virtual lockstep — are abandoning credible oversight and enabling the Trump administration to continue perpetuating these abuses,” Cummings said.
Gore skipped an invitation to appear before the committee on May 8. He said his attendance would have meant appearing on a panel with a non-government witness, which he said would have violated department policy.
Committee chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, moved to subpoena Gore before he voluntarily agreed to appear Friday.
“While I am happy to make a Department of Justice witness appear, I cannot make that witness talk,” Gowdy said Friday.
Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Michigan Republican, suggested Gore had been treated harshly at the hearing.
“Unfortunately sometimes it degenerates here,” Mitchell said. “Rather than ask questions, the witness becomes a piñata in order to make a political point. And in my, opinion today is an example of that.”