WASHINGTON — The House passed legislation Thursday intended to make it harder for future presidents to interfere with the once-a-decade census that determines political power and federal funding, a move that comes in response to the Trump administration’s failed effort to make a citizenship question part of the 2020 headcount.
The legislation was approved 220-208 with only Democratic lawmakers voting for it. The bill requires the Commerce secretary to certify to Congress that any new question sought on a future census be adequately studied and tested, and that the Government Accountability Office conduct a review of the certification.
It also seeks to limit political influence by mandating that a U.S. Census Bureau director can be fired only in cases of neglect of duty or malfeasance in office. It vests the director with all technical, operational and statistical decisions and says a deputy director has to be a career staffer with experience in demographics, statistics or related fields.
“Partisan manipulation of the census is simply wrong,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Reform, which investigated the Trump administration’s efforts to add the citizenship question. “My bill would protect the census and ensure this cannot happen again regardless of which party is in power.”
Republicans unanimously opposed the bill, saying it places more power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, reducing accountability.
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said that the changes are designed to make it easier for future census results to favor Democratic-leaning states over Republican-leaning states by making it harder to overrule the director even when the president or Congress is concerned about decisions they believe will yield an unfair or inaccurate count.
The bill faces an uphill climb in the evenly divided Senate given the party-line vote in the House. But Sen. Gary Peters, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said “clearly we will take a very serious look at it.”
The census determines how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year. Its results are used for redrawing political districts. The 2020 census was one of the most challenging in recent memory because of the attempts at political interference, the covid-19 pandemic and natural disasters.
In the years leading up to the 2020 census, the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire, a move that advocates feared would scare off Hispanics and immigrants from participating, whether they were in the country legally or not. The Supreme Court blocked the question.
The Trump administration also unsuccessfully tried to get the Census Bureau to exclude people in the country illegally from population figures used for divvying up congressional seats among the states, also called the apportionment numbers. The Trump administration tried to end data collection and processing earlier than the revised schedule put out by the Census Bureau in response to the pandemic, a move critics saw as an attempt by the administration to release the apportionment numbers while President Donald Trump was still in office.
The apportionment numbers were released in April 2021, four months after President Joe Biden took office and Trump left.
Critics claimed the citizenship question was inspired by a Republican redistricting expert who believed using citizen voting-age population instead of the total population for the purpose of redrawing of congressional and legislative districts could be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.
Even though many of the Trump administration’s political efforts failed, some advocates believe they did have an impact, with significantly larger undercounts of most racial and ethnic minorities in the 2020 census compared to the 2010 census.
The Black population in the 2020 census had a net undercount of 3.3%, while it was almost 5% for Hispanics and 5.6% for American Indians and Native Alaskans living on reservations. Those identifying as some other race had a net undercount of 4.3%.