The Democratic Party has a long to-do list after eight years in the congressional minority. With a hostile White House and Republicans holding a bitterly divided Senate, the upcoming session of Congress has little potential to produce legislation reflecting Democratic priorities.
Given this situation, Democrats have signaled that the House is eager to aggressively investigate the Trump administration. A less sexy but far more important priority should be to use the power of House committees to protect the 2020 US Census. A politically manipulated, inaccurate Census exacerbates inequality, skews the distribution of federal funds, and ensures another decade of distorted political representation. In almost every instance, Census inaccuracies disproportionately impact the young, the elderly, and people of color.
The Census is a count of “persons” mandated by the Constitution, wherein the term has a specific meaning distinct from “citizens.” Legal interpretations, most importantly of the 14th Amendment, have long assumed that since “Citizens” and “Persons” are both used throughout the Constitution, they are not interchangeable and each use is purposeful.
This means that the Census is a count of people—all people—in a given geography. The only exceptions noted in Article 1, Section 2 are artifacts of 18th-century politics: “Indians not taxed” reflects the recognition of Native Americans as independent nations (or, cynically, the denial of citizenship), while “all other Persons” refers to slaves subject to the dehumanizing political compromise that deemed them three-fifths of a person for enumeration purposes.
The mandate of the Census, then, is to count everyone. This includes noncitizens. The Trump administration—predictably, given its core xenophobia—is aggressively enforcing immigration laws and adding a question to the 2020 Census about respondents’ immigration status. Their intent is obvious: to make noncitizens unwilling to respond. In the Trump era, even legal-resident noncitizens are likely to fear consequences of identifying themselves to the federal government.
Extensive documentation shows that the Trump administration had the citizenship question at the forefront of its agenda from Inauguration Day. Six separate legal challenges to including the question are snaking through the federal courts, making it likely that resolution will have to come from a Supreme Court now balanced to favor executive power. The Constitution’s silence about what questions may be included in the Census beyond a simple population count favors the president and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Beyond the citizenship question, the White House has engaged in other efforts to undermine and skew the Census. One is leaving key positions within the Census Bureau vacant, in line with Trump’s goal of starving the government of basic administrative capacity. His appointee for director of the Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, is yet to be confirmed. The bureau has not had a deputy director since January 2017. Trump’s choice for that role—a political scientist whose research argues that competitive elections are “bad for America”—fell through. The federal “hiring freeze” implemented late last year has also hamstrung Census Bureau efforts to fill on-the-ground positions.
What does a United States with an inaccurate Census look like? Here are just a few consequences.
- As part of its role in the apportionment machine, the Census is used to determine the distribution of nearly a trillion dollars in federal funding for education, health care, policing, and other services. Simply put, everything from hospitals to schools will be underfunded. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), for example, relies on Census Bureau data to identify uninsured children and low-income neighborhoods where more health services are needed.
- The reapportionment of House seats will skew toward less diverse states. States with large immigrant and noncitizen populations may lose seats. Estimates are sensitive to data and assumptions, but any simulation of the Census counting only US citizens takes multiple seats from California and endangers seats in Texas, Florida, and New York.
- Within states, Census data will not reflect the true geographic distribution of population. This will hurt dense urban areas disproportionately, while also threatening to undercount those rural areas where immigrant labor is prominent in the local economy. State legislative boundaries will be distorted and spending for state programs will be insufficient in undercounted areas.
- US citizens who are recent immigrants or who have noncitizen relatives are likely to be undercounted. There is no way to be certain, though, because the citizenship question was added to the Census by fiat and has never been tested. The bureau has not been permitted to study the effects of the change.
The House majority is not enough to force the Commerce Department’s hand. But the Democrats will control the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and its Subcommittee on Government Operations. Under GOP leadership, the stated goal of the committee was “rightsizing” the federal government. That must change quickly.
With subpoena power, the House can hold officials in the Commerce Department and Census Bureau to account for the politically motivated changes to the questionnaire for 2020. The budget process for the next two years figures to be and concessions will have to be made. This needs to be a priority in the appropriations process.
For House Democrats, demanding Census fixes is a smart bargaining chip—one many Republicans may be willing to accede to. Southern states with large Hispanic populations are likely to suffer from the addition of the citizenship question, raising the possibility of some bipartisan support for rolling back the changes.
The details are important, and it is easy to point to consequences of a flawed Census count. But in a larger sense, the Census deserves to be free of partisan political manipulation for no reason other than the foundational role it plays in representative republican government. It rarely gets much attention, but most of our institutions of government are built around it.