The lame-duck Senate has a new bill to protect the census after Trump's interference

A briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence Aug. 11, 2020, in Winter Park, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Days before this Congress is set to end, a senator has squeezed in a bill intended to help block the kind of census interference by former President Donald Trump’s administration that upended the country’s 2020 head count.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii — a Democrat who has been a vocal advocate of the national, once-a-decade tally that’s used to determine political representation and federal funding — introduced the legislation Thursday as a companion to a similar bill the U.S. House passed in September.

Asked about the timing of his last-minute bill — which is not expected to get through a committee, let alone the Senate floor, in this lame-duck period — Schatz pointed to difficulty finding bipartisan support.

“I’ve been rooting around for a Republican to co-sponsor it with me,” Schatz told NPR. “While they are quietly supportive on the appropriations side, we have not been able to get as much enthusiasm for introducing standalone legislation. So we’re still working on that because, you know, we have no desire to turn the census into a political football.”

Many census watchers have been urging Congress to put more legal safeguards in place for the 2030 census and other future counts after Trump officials carried out what career civil servants at the Census Bureau have described as an “unprecedented” level of interference with the 2020 tally.

After a failed attempt to add to census forms a citizenship question that was likely to further suppress census participation among households with Latinos and Asian Americans and produce costly and inaccurate data, the previous administration cut short the time for counting amid the COVID-19 pandemic and tried to pressure the bureau to change its plans for protecting people’s privacy.

The Trump administration also brought on four additional appointees with no obvious qualifications to join the bureau’s top ranks during the final months of counting.

Like the House bill introduced by outgoing Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who lost a primary race this year, Schatz’s proposal would limit the number of political appointees at the Census Bureau to four, including the agency’s director. The bureau would also only be able to have one deputy director, who would be a career civil servant appointed by the director.

This Senate bill, however, does not include a provision in Maloney’s original House bill that would allow the president to remove the bureau’s director “only for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”

“I think these are close calls here because you do want to have the president retain their executive authority,” Schatz said. “You have to be careful here. If you get the wrong census director and they need to be removed, you want to make sure that the president has the authority to do that.”

Schatz’s proposals do include designating a bureau employee to focus on “optimizing racial and ethnic equity” in the census, a provision that is also part of the House-passed bill. Under the Trump administration, the bureau extended a decades-long census problem of undercounting people of color while overcounting people who identify as white and not Hispanic or Latino. According to the bureau’s follow-up survey for the 2020 census, the net undercount rate for Latinos soared to more than three times the rate of a decade earlier, and the undercounting rates for Native Americans living on reservations and Black people remained high.

Schatz said he plans to reintroduce all of his proposals in a new bill after the next Congress begins in 2023. While the Senate will remain under Democratic control, Republicans are set to control the House, likely further limiting chances of census reform.

For now, the senator said introducing this soon-to-be-dead bill is a way to “lay down a marker because a lot of times people don’t think of the census until it’s census time.”

“The Constitution enshrines the census, and that is part of our American-style democracy. The attempts to turn it into a partisan cudgel were really unfortunate,” Schatz added, referring to the years of Trump-era census interference. “We mostly beat them back, but we have to be prepared for the possibility that this is something that we have to fight against every 10 years.”

Edited by: Benjamin Swasey

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