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The House on Thursday passed legislation that would make the Census Bureau more independent from the White House, a move Democrats hope will prevent a future Republican president from adding census questions about citizenship.
Lawmakers passed the Ensuring a Fair and Accurate Census Act, thanks to nearly unanimous support from Democrats who opposed former President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful push for a citizenship question in 2018 and are still worried another Republican might try again.
Trump’s team argued a citizenship question was needed to determine where non-citizens live, which would help the government enforce the Voting Rights Act. But the question was removed after the Supreme Court ruled that his administration failed to properly justify the inclusion of that question.
Still, the decision leaves open the possibility that another Republican president might try to add it, and Democrats are hoping the bill that passed on Thursday would make it much harder.
The legislation gives more decision-making authority to the Census Bureau director, limits the number of political appointees at the bureau, and requires the Secretary of Commerce to certify that new questions added to the census are fully researched before being included.
It also says the Census Bureau director can only be removed for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office,” another attempt to make it harder for the White House to pressure the director.
Democrats who favored the bill saw Trump’s attempt as an improper use of political power over what should be an independent bureau. Democrats wrote in report language accompanying the bill that a congressional investigation showed how “a group of political appointees sought to use the census to advance an ideological agenda and potentially exclude non-citizens from the apportionment count.”
On the House floor this week, Democrats echoed that language and implied Trump’s team was hoping the question would skew the results of the census and interfere with how the government uses census data to direct federal funds across the states.
“The Trump administration and its partisan Census Bureau undermined this critical task in March of 2018 when it planned to add a citizenship question to the Census that would have violated the Constitution and reduced response rates, and they knew it,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., argued on the floor.
Republicans countered that Democrats were doing their best to make sure a citizenship question is never offered on the census again, even though past versions of the census included it.
“The purpose of this bill is clear,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. “It is to prevent a future Republican president from adding a citizenship question to the United States Census. And yet, the question of citizenship was first offered by President Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and from its introduction in the Census of 1820 through 1950, that question was included on every Census.”
In the committee report accompanying the legislation, Republicans argued that leaving out the citizenship question will only end up “guaranteeing that future censuses will be unfair and inaccurate.”
Republican opposition to the bill was not enough in the House, where Democrats hold a slim majority, and the bill passed in a 220-208 vote. Passage sends the bill to the Senate, where Democrats face the tough task of finding 10 Republican supporters in order to advance the bill.