Over 30 Senate, House Democrats Press Trump Administration to Explain How Late Addition of Census Citizenship Question Will Comply with Federal Law

Lawmakers demand answers from Administrator Rao, Secretary Ross following rushed decision to add untested citizenship question to the 2020 Census

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), along with over 30 House and Senate Democrats, called on the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Neomi Rao and Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to explain how the Trump Administration plans to comply with federal law following its hasty decision to include a question on citizenship to the upcoming 2020 Decennial Census.

Federal agencies seeking to collect information from the public must comply with the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). The law requires agencies to evaluate the need to collect information and the potential burden that collecting particular information will place on the public.

The lawmakers wrote, “The PRA requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review proposed information collections and ensure that agencies are minimizing the burden on the public. It requires OMB to ensure that the information collection maximizes practical utility and public benefit and – critical in the case of the 2020 Census – protects the integrity, objectivity, impartiality, utility and confidentiality of collected statistical information.”

The PRA also provides two opportunities for members of the public to review and comment on proposed information collections. However, the Trump Administration has yet to initiate the first public comment period and has not committed to make comments it receives available to the public.

In order to evaluate the Trump Administration’s adherence to the PRA, lawmakers asked Administrator Rao and Secretary Ross if the citizenship question was properly tested prior to the March 26, 2018 announcement, and, if not, how it intends to ensure its accuracy without testing; when the first public comment period will be opened for the public to express any concerns they may have; and what mechanisms will be utilized to ensure adding such a question will not tarnish the integrity of the 2020 Decennial Census.  

Joining Senators Carper and Harris and Representative Cummings are over 30 Democratic Members of Congress: Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Angus King (I-Maine), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Jack Reed, (D-R.I.) Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and U.S. Representatives Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia). 

The full text of the letter to Administrator Rao and Secretary Ross can be found below and in PDF form here

May 23, 2018

Dear Secretary Ross and Administrator Rao:

We write with questions about how the Trump Administration plans to comply with the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) with respect to the addition of a question on citizenship to the 2020 Decennial Census. 

The PRA establishes the legal framework that governs federal agencies before they seek to collect information from the public. The law requires agencies to evaluate the need for the information collection and develop an objective estimate of the burden it imposes on the public.[1] The law also requires agencies to evaluate whether the information collection is “necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency.”[2]

The PRA requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review proposed information collections and ensure that agencies are minimizing the burden on the public. It requires OMB to ensure that the information collection maximizes practical utility and public benefit and—critical in the case of the 2020 Census—protects the integrity, objectivity, impartiality, utility and confidentiality of collected statistical information.[3] 

The PRA provides two important opportunities for the public to review and comment on proposed collections: through comments to the agency and through comments to OMB. Under the PRA, the Department and OMB must publish notices in the Federal Register of public comment periods. The Department must certify that the collection of information is necessary, “not unnecessarily duplicative of information otherwise reasonably accessible to the agency,” as non-burdensome as practicable, and that it “uses effective and efficient statistical survey methodology appropriate to the purpose for which the information is to be collected.”[4]

On March 26, 2018, at the request of the Department of Justice, Secretary Ross announced that the 2020 Decennial Census will include a question on citizenship.[5] Numerous experts, organizations, and local and state governments have voiced concern about the addition of a citizenship question and how it may harm the overall accuracy of the census. This includes six former Census Bureau directors, who have warned that “adding an untested question on citizenship status at this late point would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk.”[6]

We understand that it is standard practice for the Department to initiate the PRA notice and comment process after it submits its proposed decennial census questions to Congress. In order for us to evaluate the Administration’s adherence to the PRA, please answer the following questions:

  1. Please explain in full how the Department will evaluate the need for citizenship information and the burden this question will place on the public, in accordance with the PRA.
  2. Under the PRA, the Department and the OMB must publish notices in the Federal Register of public comment periods. Among other objectives, information gathered in those public comment periods are intended to allow the agencies to evaluate whether the information collection request is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information shall have practical utility and to minimize the burden on the public.[7]
  3. When does the Department intend to initiate the first public comment period by publishing the notice required by 44 U.S.C. § 3506(c)(2)(A)?
  4. Will the Department include all of the public comments it receives in the certification packet it is required to submit to OMB under 44 U.S.C. § 3506(c)(3)? Will the Department make all comments it receives available to the public?
  5. Was the addition of a question on citizenship tested by the Census Bureau in a full, contemporary census environment prior to the March 26, 2018 announcement? 
  6. If not, how does the Department plan to ensure that this the citizenship question is supported by an “efficient statistical survey methodology appropriate to the purpose for which the information is to be collected”? 
  7. Has the Department determined that information about citizenship collected on the American Community Survey is not adequate for its purposes?
  8. Has the Department determined that information collected by the proposed citizenship question would not be “duplicative of information otherwise reasonably accessible” to the Department? If so, please explain how this determination was made. 
  9. What mechanisms does OMB have to measure the effect of the citizenship question on the integrity and utility of the data collected through the 2020 Census, as required under 44 U.S.C. § 3504(e)(1)? Please explain the process OMB will use to review the proposed new question.
  10. Other than approving a proposed information collection, what options are available to OMB when responding to an agency’s submission of a proposed information collection? 
  11. What weight will OMB give to the comments made by the former Census Bureau directors in its review?

We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to your response. 

[1] 44 U.S.C. § 3507(a);

[2] 44 U.S.C. § 3506(c)(2)(A)(i)-(iv).

[3] 44 U.S.C. § 3504(e)(1).

[4] 44 U.S.C. § 3506(c)(3).

[5] U.S. Department of Commerce Announces Reinstatement of Citizenship Question to the 2020 Decennial Census, U.S. Department of Commerce. Mar. 26, 2018, available at: www.commerce.gov/news/press-releases/2018/03/us-department-commerce-announces-reinstatement-citizenship-question-2020.

[6] Vincent P. Barabba, et. Al, al., to Honorable Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Department of Commerce, Jan. 26, 2018, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2018/03/27/Editorial-Opinion/Graphics/DOJ_census_ques_request_Former_Directors_ltr_to_Ross.pdfwww.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2018/03/27/Editorial-Opinion/Graphics/DOJ_census_ques_request_Former_Directors_ltr_to_Ross.pdf.

[7] 44 U.S.C. § 3506(c)(2)(A)(i)-(iv).