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Commerce Secretary To Face Lawmakers In Hearing On Census Citizenship Question

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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, straightens his papers during a 2018 Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. Ross is testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee about the census on Thursday.
Jacquelyn Martin, AP

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, straightens his papers during a 2018 Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. Ross is testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee about the census on Thursday.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is set to face tough questioning from lawmakers Thursday about why he approved including a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 census.

Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, has agreed to appear voluntarily before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill to testify about preparations for national head count.

"We have had many very serious questions for Secretary Ross since we invited him to testify several months ago, and we will finally have a chance to ask him these questions — under oath — at our hearing," said the committee's chair, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), in a written statement before Thursday's hearing.

Ross' testimony comes as the 2020 census is entangled in an almost year-long legal battle over the controversial question about U.S. citizenship status. That question asks, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

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Two federal judges have ruled that Ross' decision to add it to census forms was unlawful and blocked the administration's plans for the question from moving forward.

The Supreme Court is set to hold a hearing on the question on April 23, and the justices' decision on the question's fate is likely to be announced by June.

The oversight committee's top Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, has raised concerns about the timing of Ross' hearing.

"Such a hearing is designed to interfere with the ongoing Supreme Court case," wrote Jordan in an op-ed with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) that was published Wednesday on Fox News' website.

Cummings, however, has emphasized that the committee is carrying out its authority to investigate in order to find out why Ross pushed to get a citizenship question on the census.

The Commerce Department's public affairs office has not responded to NPR's multiple requests for comment about the hearing.

Ross testified last year to lawmakers that the Justice Department "initiated" the request for the question because the agency wants the responses to help it enforce Voting Rights Act provisions against discrimination of racial and language minorities.

In his opinion on the citizenship question lawsuits based in New York, however, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman concluded that reasoning was a "sham justification." The judge cited internal documents showing that Ross pressured Commerce Department staff to ask the Justice Department to submit a formal request for the question.

In September, Furman ordered Ross to be deposed for the lawsuits, noting that "his intent and credibility are directly at issue in these cases."

But the Trump administration's attorneys at the Justice Department fought vigorously to keep Ross from having to sit for questioning under oath. The DOJ appealed Furman's order for Ross' deposition to the Supreme Court, which temporarily shielded Ross from questioning.

The administration has also tried to delay Ross' testimony before the oversight committee after Ross agreed in January to appear, according to a recent letter sent to Ross by Cummings.

Committee member Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) says he hopes Ross' testimony "reveals something that the courts can use" in the citizenship question lawsuits. But he is keeping his expectations low.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he tries to figure out a way with his attorneys not to answer those questions," Gomez says.

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