Senate Floor Address Of Appropriations Vice Chair Leahy, On Sec. Wilbur Ross Declining To Testify Today At Hg. On Commerce Dept. Budget

ADDRESS of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Vice Chair, Senate Appropriations Committee,
On Secretary Ross Declining To Testify
Before The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee
on Commerce, Justice and Science
Senate Floor

April 2, 2019

Today, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science is holding its annual hearing on the President’s budget request for the Department of Commerce with representatives from the Department. The representative from the Department that is invited — and the representative that has appeared for as long as I can remember — is the Secretary. In this case that’s Wilbur Ross. But this year, giving no public explanation, Secretary Ross declined the Subcommittee’s invitation.

It is extraordinary to me that the Department of Commerce could send over a $12.2 billion budget request but could not send over its Secretary to defend it. It is extraordinary to me that the Secretary provided no justification for his absence. And it is extraordinary to me that this Secretary believes he should be treated different from other secretaries, and believes he need not be held accountable before the American people.

And Secretary Ross’s absence is especially concerning to me, given that the last time he appeared before this Subcommittee, he blatantly, objectively, and irrefutably misled me about a critical issue facing the Commerce Department.

A year ago I asked Secretary Ross why he had marketed the proposed addition of a controversial citizenship question to the Census as necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The claim that the question was needed to enforce a law that the administration had no interest in enforcing was laughable at the time. So I asked Secretary Ross why he had such a sudden interest in adding the question when the Department of Justice had not brought a single suit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

His response? Secretary Ross claimed that “the Justice Department is the one who made the request” of the Commerce Department. The Secretary also made similar claims when appearing before the House: He testified that Commerce was “responding solely to the Department of Justice’s request,” and “the Department of Justice made the request for the inclusion of the citizenship question.”

All of these claims were false. And provably so, thanks to emails produced as part of a FOIA lawsuit. We now know that it was Secretary Ross himself who made the initial request to include the citizenship question. It was Secretary Ross who pressured a reluctant Justice Department to claim that such a question would be helpful to enforce the Voting Rights Act. And we now know that the attempted inclusion of this question was — as I suspected from the beginning — a nakedly political act. One that involves none other than Kris Kobach and Steve Bannon.

The proof of all of this is in the emails. In just one, a year before I asked Secretary Ross about this issue, he wrote that he was “mystified why nothing has been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question.”

Well, I’m mystified how Secretary Ross’s sworn testimony can be construed as anything other than blatantly misleading Congress. Indeed his testimony earned him Four Pinocchios from The Washington Post.

Two courts have now declared that Secretary Ross’s attempt to include the citizenship question was illegal. One of them found that “in a startling number of ways, Secretary Ross’s explanations for his decision were unsupported by, or even counter to, the evidence before the agency.” That’s a remarkable, but not surprising, declaration from the court.

Today I have a very simple message for Secretary Ross: You’re not an investment banker anymore. You serve the American people, and part of your job is to be accountable to Congress and to the public. Trying to run from Congress will not solve your problems. And trying to hide the truth will not either. The truth has a way of catching up with you.

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