Vitter takes on census, immigrant rights groups

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In his push to have the Census Bureau count the number of U.S. citizens, Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, is taking a very parochial approach with his colleagues: Your state could be the one to lose an extra seat in Congress.

Mr. Vitter is holding up one of the 2010 spending bills in the Senate, demanding a vote on his amendment to force the census to add a question about citizenship status to its 2010 questionnaire. He has written letters to the senators from nine states he says would lose seats to states with higher illegal immigrant or noncitizen populations, telling them it’s in their interest to support him.

“Voting for cloture or against my amendment could very well be a vote to strip your state of proper representation in Congress and cede your state’s influence to other states that reward illegal immigrants like California and New York,” he said in his letter to Indiana’s two senators, which would be among those at a disadvantage.

But the fight is turning personal as the Census Bureau says it is too late and too expensive to change next year’s count. Immigrant rights groups and some Democratic lawmakers say it’s mean-spirited and racist to ask the kind of question Mr. Vitter wants.

“It’s really a coldblooded political maneuver to discourage participation by people of color,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat.

Rep. Joe Baca, California Democrat, wondered “whether ladies of the night” should be counted — a reference to Mr. Vitter’s acknowledged use of an escort service.

Every 10 years, the 535 seats in the House are divided among the states based on population. At root, the new debate is whether only those eligible to vote should be considered for those purposes or whether everyone residing in the country should be tallied.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says (in part): “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed.”

Michael P. McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who studies the drawing of congressional districts, said that language is clear, and, barring a change to the Constitution, seats must be allocated based on the total number of people.

“You’d have to have a constitutional amendment to change the apportionment numbers,” Mr. McDonald said.

Mr. Vitter is not so sure — and his spokesman says before the country can have that debate, it should at least get better data about the scope of the issue.

“Constitutional scholars who’ve spoken to the senator’s office have argued that it is not as clear as district courts have ruled. There has not been a high court ruling on this issue as far as I have learned,” spokesman Joel DiGrado said.

Elliott Stonecipher, a demographer in Louisiana whose Op-Ed column in the Wall Street Journal this summer helped spark the debate, said he believes the legal issues are still in doubt, but that the principles involved are clear.

“I have yet to read one spokesperson from the left who will simply argue that noncitizens should get representation in the House of Representatives,” he said. “They will use all kinds of other arguments, mainly about settled law and the 14th Amendment, but they won’t ever jump up and say, ‘We believe here’s the reason noncitizens should have representation in the House of Representatives.’”

The effort has enraged immigrant rights supporters, and a group of Democratic lawmakers from the Asian, black and Hispanic caucuses held a news conference Thursday to denounce Mr. Vitter’s efforts. They warned that if his amendment passed it would push back next year’s census.

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