While Americans are understandably focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration is threatening the longstanding independence of the United States Postal Service and the United States Census Bureau. But the agencies, and the critical functions they administer, aren’t the main victims of the threatened actions—the American people are. With a presidential election around the corner, voters are weighing whether to risk their lives by waiting in line and possibly catching the coronavirus in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote, or to shield themselves from exposure by mailing in their vote and hoping their ballot will be delivered in time to be counted. Similarly, millions of residents are at risk of not being counted in the decennial census and thus fully represented in Congress for the next decade.
“The functions of the Postal Service and Census Bureau are so important that the founders enshrined them in the Constitution.”
These are concerns no one should ever have to think about. The delivery of mail and the enumeration of people in the country are inherent government functions at the very core of our democracy. The Postal Service is essential to communications and commerce, and the Census Bureau gathers the data used to determine representation levels in Congress and how funds are distributed to the states. These functions are so important that the founders enshrined them in the Constitution itself. As such, these institutions should never be politicized. Congress, too, has understood their importance to a functioning democracy, and over time has worked to further protect these agencies from politics and undue political interference. Unfortunately, recent actions by the administration have threatened the independence and nonpartisanship of these agencies.
The United States Postal Service
The United States Postal Service has played a steady role in our country for 245 years. Dating back to colonial times when letters were delivered between the 13 original colonies on horseback, the Postal Service evolved to delivering ballots to troops during the Civil War, to delivering bills, catalogs, holiday cards, packages, and medicines to more than 150 million homes and businesses daily now. But although the Postal Service has changed over time just as our nation has changed, it hasn’t been able to innovate enough to keep up with the age of email and online bill paying. The Postal Service posted a loss of $8.8 billion in 2019, marking the 13th consecutive year it has lost money. Its total unfunded liabilities and debt have surpassed more than $140 billion. The agency is in dire financial straits, and has long needed serious administrative and legislative attention. However, the Postal Service’s financial situation should not be used as an excuse to increase political control of the agency—control that could influence the upcoming presidential election, and future elections thereafter.
History of the Agency
On July 26, 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the country’s first postmaster general and tasked him with administering the country’s mail service. In 1788, the U.S. Constitution granted Congress the power to “establish post offices and post roads.” The following year, Congress renewed the post office by creating the Office of the Postmaster General, and made the postmaster general a presidentially appointed position. Under President George Washington, the Office of the Postmaster General was placed within the Treasury Department, since the post office raised revenue through the sale of stamps. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson elevated the position of postmaster general to a cabinet-level position, even though it was still under the jurisdiction of the Treasury. And in 1872, Congress established the Post Office Department as a separate federal agency.
In the lead-up to the Civil War, the Post Office grew considerably both in size and in significance. During the war it provided soldiers the opportunity to vote from the battlefield, ensuring that soldiers could still participate in the democracy they were fighting to keep together.
The Post Office Department remained almost unchanged for the next hundred years. However, following a labor strike in 1970, Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act, which made several important changes to the nation’s mail delivery service and created the modern-day United States Postal Service. The law granted postal workers the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and working conditions, and, most notably, granted the agency financial and operational independence from the rest of the government.
Unlike most federal agencies, the majority of the Postal Service’s budget is not subject to congressional appropriations. Instead, the Postal Service generates most of its own funding by charging customers for the products they use, such as postage for letters and packages. (Congress does provide funding for mail for the blind, overseas voting for citizens living in foreign countries, to cover previous debt the Postal Service had acquired after Congress forced the agency to provide services at below-cost rates, and for the Postal Service’s inspector general and the Postal Regulatory Commission.) Funding its own operations is key to the independence of the Postal Service, allowing it to operate free of day-to-day partisan political pressures.
The Postal Service is one of the only federal agencies that has a direct relationship with the American people, providing them an essential service nearly every day. There is never a time the agency should be forced to prioritize mail delivery to one area of the country over another such as urban or rural communities, or one service over another, such as the delivery of letters over the delivery of packages. Self-funding allows the Postal Service to have the flexibility to address challenges as they arise, rather than having its operations decided through partisan politics, as was once the system.
When Congress controlled the Postal Service’s budget, they in turn also controlled the agency’s staff size, buildings, and equipment. The country’s high demand for postal services did not receive the same level of financial support from Congress, leading to many high-profile backlogs in the 1960s.
Congress also used to control the postage rates. Since constituents naturally preferred lower rates, Congress had an incentive to keep those rates artificially low. That resulted in massive debt for the Postal Service, and in the agency not being able to invest in its infrastructure. As the problem worsened, one thing became increasingly clear: Making hundreds of politicians responsible for setting the postage rates was neither efficient nor sustainable. Trying to calculate postage rates to ensure solvability simply wasn’t the expertise of members of Congress. The 1970 law created the Postal Rate Commission (later renamed the Postal Regulatory Commission by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006), and today, the commission serves as an independent regulator of the Postal Service and approves proposed rate increases submitted by the Postal Service. Currently, service standards—that is, the amount of time in which the Postal Service aims to deliver pieces of mail by—designed to prevent future backlogs like the ones that plagued the agency in the 1960s and to keep the Postal Service accountable and competitive have resulted in the delivery of first-class mail in an average of only 2.1 days as of 2015.
The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 restructured the Postal Service to run more like a private company than a traditional government agency. The Postal Service is overseen by a Board of Governors instead of a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed individual, and that board reviews the agency’s polices and finances much like a board of directors for a private company would.
The Board of Governors is designed to have 11 members. Nine are governors who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. These governors serve staggered seven-year terms, which helps ensure new presidents are able to appoint new individuals to the board with governors overlapping across administrations, and each governor can be renewed once. In addition, bipartisanship is built into the board, where not more than five governors may belong to the same political party. The nine governors also choose the postmaster general, who then becomes a member of the board, and those 10 select the deputy postmaster general, who serves as the 11th and final board member. While the governors serve a defined number of years, the postmaster general serves at the pleasure of the governors for an indefinite term, and the deputy postmaster general serves at the pleasure of the governors and the postmaster general. This system was intended to further insulate the Postal Service from political pressure by distancing both the head and deputy postmasters general from any particular administration. The postmaster general has the additional title of chief executive officer and is tasked with administering the policies set by the board.
Not So Independent Lately
Although Congress has worked to isolate the Postal Service from partisan politics, the wall of financial and operational independence seems to be showing some cracks.
Due to a lack of nominations and Senate inaction over previous administrations, the Board of Governors had no governors between 2016 until 2018. Since then, all current governors have been appointed by President Donald Trump, representing both Republican and Democratic seats, and the postmaster general was selected by those governors. The deputy postmaster general position has been vacant since June 1.
Another crack in the Postal Service’s independence occurred in April 2018, when Trump issued an executive order creating a task force to examine the Postal Service’s finances and pricing structure. The setting of postal rates is apolitical and no president is involved in any way, but in recent years, Trump has inappropriately railed against the Postal Service for not charging Amazon and other companies more to deliver their packages. Instead of creating a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission of postal experts with knowledge of the agency to examine the reasons for the Postal Service’s longstanding financial woes and to come up with policy recommendations to address the issues, the president selected political appointees.
The task force was headed by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and included the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the director of the Office of Personnel Management. None of these three officials have the requisite postal experience or expertise to adequately evaluate the financial soundness of the Postal Service and its statutory operations. While the Treasury Department promotes economic prosperity and specializes in the generation of revenue, Mnuchin is likely not versed in the Postal Service’s daily operations and its various mandates set forth by Congress. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) oversees the implementation of the president’s policy, budget, management, and regulatory objectives, and it is that very mandate to implement the president’s policies across the government that makes it unsuitable to oversee the independent Postal Service. Furthermore, then-OMB director Mick Mulvaney was criticized by postal unions for supporting policies that cut pensions of postal employees when he served in Congress. The Office of Personnel Management acts as the federal government’s human resources office and personnel policy manager. It’s surprising the Office of Personnel Management was included to evaluate the finances of the Postal Service, given that postal employees have not been considered federal employees since the 1970 postal reform legislation.
The task force’s report did include a few recommendations for administrative and congressional action that are worth considering, such as evaluating the Postal Service’s Universal Service Obligation and pursuing cost-cutting strategies. However, most recommendations were directed at re-evaluating the price of e-commerce packages, echoing the president’s priorities. As a result, the task force was viewed by unions and by some members of Congress as too political, and no serious reforms have been adopted.
“Mnuchin tried to use the Treasury loan as leverage to gain greater control over the Postal Service and pursue policies favorable to the president and the administration.”
Yet another crack opened when, as the United States struggled with combatting the coronavirus pandemic, Congress authorized a $10 billion loan from Treasury to the Postal Service to help address new financial constraints placed on the agency by the fallout from the pandemic. When federal agencies borrow money, they must go through the Treasury’s Federal Financing Bank. According to the Washington Post, Mnuchin, in his capacity as the leader of the Federal Financing Bank, tried to use the loan as leverage to gain greater control over the Postal Service and pursue policies favorable to the president and the administration, including how much the agency charges for delivering packages and the selection of a new postmaster general.
David Williams, a former vice chairman of the Board of Governors who resigned in April over the administration’s efforts to erode the agency’s independence, testified before the Congressional Progressive Caucus in mid-August that Mnuchin abused his authority as leader of the Federal Financing Bank and that he had tried to make the apolitical Postal Service “a political tool.” Williams, who previously served as inspector general of the Postal Service and of the Treasury, asserted that some of the terms included in a draft loan agreement, such as raising parcel rates by 400%, were designed to achieve the president’s apparent goal of harming Amazon by forcing the company to pay more for using the Postal Service. Those terms didn’t make it into the final loan agreement.
Still, it appears the loan does include one major political win for the president: The final loan agreement includes a requirement that paves the way to make the Postal Service show Treasury its nonpublic contracts with Amazon and other companies. While disclosing these contracts doesn’t automatically force Amazon to pay more, it could eventually result in the release of proprietary information about the company’s profitability margin and in political pressure on the Postal Service to raise its rates on Amazon.
Trump has not been shy about his distaste for Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post (another frequent recipient of the president’s ire), and in 2018 Trump reportedly personally urged then-Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate charged for Amazon and other companies, despite the fact that the Postal Service benefits financially from Amazon’s contract with the agency. While the specific data are proprietary and nonpublic, a redacted Postal Service inspector general report finds that the vast majority of the negotiated service agreements are largely profitable. Those that were not profitable were mostly smaller contracts with low volume. To ensure the negotiated service agreements between the Postal Service and companies are profitable to the agency, the agreements must be proposed by the Board of Governors and reviewed and approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission.
If the Postal Service begins charging Amazon and other companies too much, it may no longer make financial sense for those companies to do business with the Postal Service. The companies could be forced to shift their business away from the Postal Service to its competitors or further invest in their own delivery fleets, which would compound the Postal Service’s financial problems. Amazon continues to invest in its own logistics network and is increasingly delivering its own packages. And if these companies have to start investing in expanding their own delivery infrastructure, the costs will likely be passed on to the consumer. Even the president’s 2018 postal task force acknowledged that 70% of consumers make their purchase choice based on the cheapest option for home delivery. Not only could consumers be hurt by these increased prices, but the Postal Service will lose this critical life support and its financial situation will further deteriorate.
Given that the vast majority of these contracts are profitable and the growth of the Postal Service’s shipping and package business has more than offset the decline in first class mail, it appears the loan requirement to see the contracts is nothing more than an attempt to appease the president in his feud with Amazon.
“Even more shocking than Treasury trying to gain control over the operations of the Postal Service is the apparent involvement of Mnuchin in selecting the new postmaster general.”
Even more shocking than Treasury trying to gain control over the operations of the Postal Service is the apparent involvement of Mnuchin in selecting the new postmaster general. He reportedly had “unusual” one-on-one meetings with board members urging the board to act quickly in selecting a postmaster general. According to Williams, Mnuchin had required prospective board members to come to his office to “kiss the ring” and receive his blessing before they were confirmed, and called on them with requests and demands once they were appointed. Williams said Mnuchin would express his approval of or disappointment in their performance in one-on-one meetings outside of the full board.
In May, the Board of Governors announced that Louis DeJoy, the former chairman and CEO of a logistics company, was unanimously chosen as the postmaster general. Some members of Congress have speculated that since DeJoy, who donated millions of dollars to Trump’s presidential campaign and to other Republican party organizations and candidates, was not on the list of candidates provided to the board from a contracted search firm, Mnuchin may have recommended DeJoy for the position to some of the Republican board members during their one-on one meetings. Mnuchin has denied recruiting DeJoy.
Delivering Election Interference?
With the coronavirus raising concerns about the safety of voting in person due to large lines and crowds, voting by mail has re-emerged as a safe and secure way to casts ballots. However, in recent weeks high profile operational changes at the Postal Service, coupled with statements by the president, have drawn bipartisan scrutiny and worries that the administration may be trying to influence the presidential election. (While more than two dozen Republicans joined Democrats in passing legislation in the House of Representatives to block operational changes at the Postal Service until after the presidential election, the legislation is not expected to be taken up in the Senate.)
Since becoming postmaster general, DeJoy has overseen a variety of changes to the operations of the Postal Service. These changes, including the removal of mail collection boxes and the planned decommissioning of 10% of the agency’s mail sorting machines, occurred as the Postal Service warned 46 states that the agency could not guarantee all ballots would be delivered in time to be counted by election day. To be fair, some of these plans may predate DeJoy’s appointment, as the Postal Service has been removing collection boxes and phasing out machines to better match volume. However, such operational changes have ramped up under DeJoy’s tenure. The Postal Service removed 711 sorting machines this year, nearly double the 388 machines removed on average each year for the past four years.
Outcry over these changes prompted DeJoy to announce that the Postal Service would pause some changes that could impact mail delivery ahead of the election. However, several reports indicate that the Postal Service will not reverse all policies contributing to mail delays. Significantly, it will not replace collection boxes or mail sorting machines that have already been removed. Moreover, the agency confirmed it will not reverse a new policy that resulted in mail carriers having to leave mail behind for delivery the next day. The agency also quietly and suddenly barred employees from serving as witnesses on mail-in ballots—a longstanding service provide by postal workers. This change was made without notifying state election officials.
Given that the Postal Service has acknowledged it will likely not be able to deliver all mail-in ballots in time to be counted, why wouldn’t the agency reverse these changes now and wait until after the election to consider reinstating them?
While it’s not unprecedented for a postmaster general to come from the private sector, the previous four postmasters general were postal service employees with years of experience in the agency. Given the Postal Service’s dire financial situation it could arguably be helpful to have an outsider with logistics experience shake things up at the agency. What is unusual, however, is DeJoy’s clear conflicts of interest and political leanings.
“DeJoy was allowed to retain between $30 million and $75 million in holdings in his former company and current Postal Service contractor, XPO Logistics.”
DeJoy was allowed to retain between $30 million and $75 million in holdings in his former company and current Postal Service contractor, XPO Logistics. He was also allowed to retain some stock options in Amazon, another company that does a significant amount of business with the Postal Service. While he did divest up to a quarter million dollars of Amazon stock when he became postmaster general, he also purchased new stock options in the company valued between $50,000 and $100,000. These new stock options reportedly give the owner the right to buy new shares of Amazon at a price much lower than their current market price. These options could give DeJoy greater protection from losses should the Trump administration pursue policies that financially harm Amazon.
In addition, a POGO search of the Federal Election Commission’s donor database reveals that no other postmaster general since the 1970 reform law has donated to a candidate or party before their appointment, let alone millions like DeJoy.
To be clear, donating to a political campaign should not automatically disqualify someone from holding federal office. However, if that person is alleged to have violated campaign finance law then a legitimate investigation is warranted. According to reports, former employees of DeJoy’s former business, New Breed Logistics, assert that DeJoy and his aides encouraged them to make contributions to Republican candidates with the understanding they would later receive bonuses to defray the cost of these contributions. The Washington Post found that 124 employees contributed more than $1 million to Republican candidates between 2000 and 2014. Many of those employees had never before contributed to political campaigns, and stopped once they left the company. If the allegations that DeJoy organized and financed a straw-donor scheme are true, this would violate federal campaign finance law. Given the independence and nonpartisan nature of the Postal Service, having someone with such apparent conflicts of interest in charge of that agency is concerning.
All these changes have occurred as the president has tweeted the unfounded assertion that universal mail-in voting would make the 2020 election “the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history,” and floated the idea of delaying the election if it isn’t safe enough for people to vote in person at the ballot box—something he doesn’t have the authority to do. In a March 30, 2020, interview on Fox & Friends, Trump rejected the idea of increasing funding to support mail-in voting, as proposed by the Democrats, directly equating increased funding for mail-in voting to increased voter turnout for Democratic candidates over Republican candidates: “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things—levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
More recently, in an August 13, 2020, interview on the Fox Business network, Trump directly connected his resistance to additional Postal Service funding to a desire to prevent mail-in voting, stating, “Now, they need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it.”
The United States Census Bureau
Another important institution enshrined in the Constitution is the census. Administered every 10 years by the U.S. Census Bureau, which is part of the Department of Commerce, the census is meant to accurately count every resident of each municipality, county, state, district, and territory in the country. The decennial count is an essential government function that has long-term impacts. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic coupled with recent politicization of the census could have catastrophic impacts over the next ten years, or longer.
Initially, like the Postal Service, the Census Bureau wasn’t a permanent agency. Over time, however, the census became more and more detailed and more complex, and Congress responded by enacting legislation in 1902 that created a permanent office within the Department of the Interior. In making the office permanent, Congress was recognizing the importance of continuity in the collection and maintenance of data to ensure its accuracy. A year later the Census Office moved to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor where it remained for a decade until the department split into two. The Census Bureau has been housed at the Department of Commerce since 1913.
“The pandemic, coupled with recent politicization of the census, could have catastrophic impacts over the next ten years—or longer.”
The agency is supposed to count each of the states and territories, including the total resident population, whether citizen or noncitizen. The main purpose of the census is congressional apportionment, the process of dividing the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the 50 states based on those states’ populations. In 2010, because of increased populations, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington each gained one seat while Florida gained two seats and Texas gained four seats. And because of decreased populations, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania each lost one seat while New York and Ohio each lost two seats.
Another purpose of the census is to gather the demographic data that agencies need to ensure they fund federal programs such as transportation, education, and health care in a way that is fair and proportionate to the needs of communities across the nation. POGO’s Census Project recently detailed how the 2020 census data will help guide approximately $1.5 trillion in annual spending across 316 federal programs.
Although the director of the Census Bureau is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, Congress recognized the need to ensure the person serving in this position is qualified and insulated from political pressure. The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 made several important changes to the Census Bureau director position. First, the law mandated that the director be chosen “without regard to political affiliation.” This important provision seeks to make the position nonpartisan. The law further requires the director to have “demonstrated ability in managing large organizations and experience in the collection, analysis, and use of statistical data.” Making the position contingent on experience reduces the risk of an unqualified political operative assuming the role. Finally, the law stipulates that the director may serve no more than two full five-year terms, additionally insolating the director from political pressure. The five-year terms mean the director can overlap a change in presidencies.
The requirement that the director have relevant experience was a major factor in the Trump administration failing to appoint Thomas Brunell, a Texas political science professor, to the deputy director position in 2018. While there are no statutory requirements for a deputy director and the position does not require Senate confirmation, deputies generally need to be qualified enough to step into the role of director should there be a vacancy. Brunell had little professional experience in statistics or mathematics, and lacked the leadership experience needed to help run an agency with more than 4,000 employees. Furthermore, Brunell had long supported efforts to gerrymander congressional districts. In fact, in 2008 Brunell published a book in which he tried to make the case that gerrymandered districts that favored one party over another were better for voters than those districts that were competitive. Given the census’s direct influence over apportionment, such opinions were concerning in a person who would be so high up in the Census Bureau.
Can We Count on Independence?
Because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau significantly shortened its data collection time frame, including how long it had to collect field data (known as the nonresponse follow-up operation). Moreover, some people may understandably be hesitant to interact with strangers approaching their front doors during the pandemic. These two significant challenges are highly likely to adversely impact the accuracy of the census.
Under federal law, the census begins on April 1, and must be “completed within 9 months after the census date and reported by the Secretary [of Commerce] to the President of the United States.” While the commencement and completion dates are set by law, the administration, via the Commerce secretary and Census Bureau director, has the flexibility to set internal deadlines for tasks such as door-to-door counts, counting the homeless, and when to finalize the data to determine the apportionment counts.
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross submitted a request to Congress in April that Congress extend the December 31, 2020, apportionment count publication deadline to April 30, 2021, as a result of COVID-19. In 2020, door-to-door counts only began in mid-August, significantly shortening the counting period and thus likely reducing the accuracy of the count. Comparatively, in 2010, door-to-door counts began at the end of April and were completed by October 21, and the final counts were delivered to the president for apportionment by December 21.
Still, regardless of the extraordinary circumstances and challenges posed by the pandemic, Dillingham appeared to indicate in July, after he had made the request for an extension, that the administration wants to press forward, telling Congress that “the Census Bureau and others want us to proceed as rapidly as possible.” In August, the Census Bureau announced it would be ending its collection of field data by September 30, a full month earlier than the 2010 count, due to the pandemic. This means the agency will only be doing door counts for seven weeks. While the bureau has the authority to finish the census early as it did in 2010, it would need congressional approval to extend the deadline past its current statutory deadline. While Congress has yet to extend the census, legislation has been introduced in both chambers to extend the deadline to next April.
On September 3, plaintiffs filed a case in California to try to force the Census Bureau to continue conducting its count through October 31 rather than ending it at the administration’s accelerated completion date of September 30. On September 5, a federal judge in California placed a temporary restraining order on the agency to prevent it from winding down the in-person counting efforts, and on September 17 extended that injunction through September 24. Prior to the injunctions, the Census Bureau had begun to lay off the temporary census workers, but the injunctions forced the agency to pause those layoffs and to continue counting households. On September 24, a federal judge ruled that the Census Bureau must continue counting through the end of October.
The decision to press forward on an expedited timeline is baffling considering that, as of September 23, 96.2% of American households had returned their census forms. That means the bureau had less than seven weeks to count millions of people, and runs the risk of not accurately counting all households in time. Former Census Bureau directors wrote that the “end result will be under-representation of those persons that NRFU [nonresponse follow-up operation] was expected to reach and, at even greater rates for traditionally hard-to-count populations and over-representations of all other populations with potentially extreme differential undercounts.”
The populations most at risk of being undercounted are people of color, renters, immigrants, and people who need assistance in filling out the census form for reasons such as language barriers or technology issues. When you factor in that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected these same communities, the risk of not getting an accurate count compounds, as members of these populations may be hospitalized due to the virus.
“States can gain or lose seats in the House based on the census counts. If communities of color or other hard-to-count populations aren’t fully counted, they will not be equally or properly represented in Congress.”
As we saw with the 2010 census, states can gain or lose seats in the House based on the census counts. If communities of color or other hard-to-count populations aren’t fully counted, they will not be equally or properly represented in Congress, and there could easily be an over representation of white Americans. Furthermore, the inaccurate data could contribute to state legislatures gerrymandering congressional districts in an attempt to keep incumbent political parties in power in future elections. Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating boundaries of a congressional district to favor one party over another. Both parties do it and this harms voters and our democracy.
The ongoing pandemic has not been the only reason for changes in the 2020 census. In fact, in recent years, the administration has proposed politically charged changes to the census designed to undermine the purpose of the census.
In March 2018, the administration announced its plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. The Supreme Court blocked that attempt in June 2019, citing sufficient concern about why the question was being added in the first place.
Two weeks later, Trump issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to provide to the Commerce Department any records relating to the number of citizens and noncitizens present in the country. The administration plans to use this data to assist states in identifying eligible voters when carving up their legislative districts. But it’s unclear exactly what data the administration would be using or how it would be able to reliably produce citizenship numbers for every community because there is no citizenship question on the census questionnaire, the only government survey that goes to every household. If the administration’s plan is to rely on sampling or some other partial data to determine the number of citizens and noncitizens, it could be in direct violation of another Supreme Court ruling: In 1999 the Supreme court ruled against President Bill Clinton’s administration when it attempted to use statistical sampling to adjust the census numbers for apportionment.
On July 21, Trump issued a memo directing the Department of Commerce to exclude “illegal aliens” from the apportionment. The memo claims that the president makes the final determination on apportionment numbers since it’s his responsibility to submit the report to Congress. On September 10, a federal court in New York blocked the order, finding that Trump overstepped his authority because federal law requires that apportionment be determined by the number of residents in each district, regardless of citizenship status.
The United States Postal Service
The Postal Service is on an unsustainable path and is in need of serious reforms. Some reforms can be made administratively by the Postal Service and the Postal Regulatory Commission. At the very least, to eliminate even the appearance of a politicized Postal Service, attempts to influence the upcoming election, or discouraging voters from voting by mail, the Postal Service should reverse all recent service changes. Congress also needs to step up to make some tough decisions and pass needed legislation.
Furthermore, the president should be doing everything in his power to facilitate an election where every American has the ability to safely cast a vote come November. Rather than blocking funds for the Postal Service to meet the demand of the unprecedent number of mail-in ballots expected to be cast this year, the administration should work with Congress to ensure the agency has the resources necessary to ensure every mail-in ballot will be delivered in a timely manner.
The United States Census Bureau
While it’s imperative that the government comply with the Constitution and conduct the 2020 census, Congress should ensure that it be conducted properly and accurately. Congress held a hearings on the Census in July and another one in September, but should hold additional hearings, request additional documents, and follow up on existing documents by insisting they get full, unredacted versions of documents they received in a redacted format. Considering the coronavirus has infected more than six million people in the United States and killed more than 200,000 of those people, Congress should consider legislation to extend the apportionment deadline until April 2021. This would give the Census Bureau enough time to properly count all households as required by law. Failing to do so could result in significant and long-lasting harm to our democracy. Census counts affect every single district in this country, and inaccurate counts will do nothing but harm.
Congress should also resist further attempts by the administration to exclude any U.S. residents from the apportionment piece of the census.
The United States Postal Service and the United States Census Bureau both administer essential functions spelled out in the Constitution. Millions of Americans depend on the services these agencies provide. Given the critical importance of the services, Congress has worked over the course of centuries to shield both agencies from political interference. It should continue do so by taking steps to ensure all residents are counted in the census and all voters are able to fully participate in the upcoming and future elections.