WASHINGTON -- House Democrats accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a contentious face-off Thursday of having lied to Congress about his role in a Trump administration effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
Confronted by Democrats for the first time since they won control of the House, Ross reiterated testimony he gave last year that the question was added to the draft census form at the request of the Justice Department. Democrats cited calls, emails and depositions showing that he worked with White House officials to add the question, for the first time since 1950, before the Justice Department's request in December 2017.
The administration has said that the question is needed to help the department enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. California and other states with large immigrant populations have sued, contending that some people will refuse to answer the census, resulting in under-counts that will cost them clout and federal funds for their residents.
The Supreme Court is expected to consider the issue next month.
Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri was the most confrontational of the Democrats at the hearing of the House Oversight Committee, charging that documents obtained by the panel prove Ross lied under oath.
"Mr. Secretary, you lied to Congress. 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," Clay said. "You have already done great harm to the census in 2020, and you have zero credibility. And you should, in my opinion, resign."
Ross denied any "nefarious purpose," adding, "I testified truthfully to the best of my ability in response to what my understanding of the questions were."
He said the conversations Democrats pointed to were an attempt to gather information because he heard the Justice Department "might" ask to have the citizenship question included.
Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore told the committee in a deposition last week that he was given a memo from a Commerce Department official justifying the question two months before he made the official request for the Justice Department.
Democrats pointed to depositions of other federal employees indicating Ross was looking for a department to press for the citizenship question. Yet the rationale of citing the Voting Rights Act originated in his Commerce Department or elsewhere in the administration, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said.
Ross has declined to produce some documents the committee sought, citing the pending lawsuits. Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., gave Ross until Tuesday to provide the documents or, he said, the committee might subpoena them.
Ross' appearance came a week after a second federal judge said he had violated the Constitution and the law. The Supreme Court is scheduled to weigh the issue in April, and is expected to decide before it adjourns in June.
The Constitution requires the government to count all U.S. residents every 10 years. The results are used in many ways, including to apportion congressional districts and federal funding and, at the local level, to decide locations for firehouses, schools and polling places.
The census stopped asking Americans about citizenship after 1950, when the government determined it would get a more accurate estimation by polling a fraction of the population. Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing information from respondents with other agencies. Ross stressed that answers will not be used for immigration enforcement.
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