Washington Insider -- Thursday

Census Question Fight

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Mexico's Incoming Leader to Talk NAFTA 2.0 With Trump Officials

Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will meet three more top White House officials Friday, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner. Those are in addition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was already set to meet Lopez Obrador and his team in Mexico City to discuss the bilateral relationship.

Lopez Obrador will be accompanied by some of his cabinet picks, such as Marcelo Ebrard for foreign minister, Graciela Marquez Colin for economy minister and Jesus Seade for chief NAFTA negotiator.

The officials are expected to discuss the NAFTA renegotiation, economic development projects and migration. Lopez Obrador reiterated on Tuesday that he will continue to respect the negotiating positions from current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration.

"We consider that [NAFTA] should be maintained. In this time, we are going to be observers. We recognize the work from the negotiating team, and we're going to be with them as observers to support and achieve a good deal," Lopez Obrador said in a press conference outside his campaign office.

Senate Sends Trump a Warning Shot On Tariffs

The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution that warns President Trump against abusing his authority to impose tariffs on imports for national security reasons.

The vast majority of Republicans and every Senate Democrat supported a motion to instruct, which would direct a House-Senate committee to include language in a spending bill that would give Congress a say in tariffs imposed by the White House for a national security purposes.

The motion passed 88-11.

Washington Insider: Census Question Fight

If you thought the ongoing fights over tariffs, taxes and other economic matters are about as complex and obscure as it gets, the New York Times and a few lawyerly organizations are increasingly deep into the weeds over proposed changes for the 2020 census. And, it now seems the outcome of this fight could be a pretty big deal.

It was announced in March, the Times says, the decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census was seen by some as a ploy to discourage immigrants from filling out the form -- and to improve Republican political fortunes. The Commerce Department, which made the decision, insisted that sound policy, not politics, was its sole motivation. However, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross later shifted his position on the explanation for the citizenship question's origin. In response, Judge Furman of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan said it appeared that the Commerce Department had acted in "bad faith" in deciding to add the question.

Now, the Times says that the recent federal lawsuit seeking to block the question "has cast doubt on the department's explanation and the veracity of the man who offered it, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Jr." And it has given the plaintiffs in the suit -- attorneys general for 17 states, the District of Columbia and a host of cities and counties -- broad leeway to search for evidence that the critics are correct.

In last week's hearing, Judge Furman gave the plaintiffs permission to search government files and take sworn testimony from up to 10 administration officials in an effort to discover how and why the citizenship decision was made.

The administration has claimed that better data on the citizenship of voting-age adults was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act and Secretary Ross said that the Justice Department, which oversees enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, had asked that the question be placed on census forms. But late last month he said in a memo that he actually had been discussing the citizenship question "with other government officials" since shortly after taking office in February 2017 -- and that the Justice Department had made its request only after he or his aides asked it to."

Judge Furman called Ross's March explanation of his decision both "potentially untrue" and improbable because, he said, the Justice Department "has shown little interest in enforcing the Voting Rights Act."

The Commerce Department spokeswoman, Rebecca Glover said there was no inconsistency between the two statements.

In their lawsuit, which is led by the New York attorney general, Barbara Underwood, the plaintiffs imply that enforcing the Voting Rights Act was a pretext for another goal: ensuring that the nation's undocumented immigrants are not counted for the purpose of drawing congressional and other political districts.

The practical impact would be to reduce the number of congressional districts, and therefore Electoral College votes, in states with large numbers of noncitizens -- often, though not always, Democratic strongholds, the Times said.

Ross has not named the administration officials with whom he discussed the citizenship question after taking office. But other lawsuit documents released last month show that Ross received an email in July 2017 from Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who has taken a strong position against immigration and who urged Ross to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census on the grounds that undocumented immigrants "do not actually 'reside' in the United States" but are counted for reapportionment purposes.

Kobach said that he had recently reached out to the Commerce secretary "on the direction of Steve Bannon," who was then the White House chief strategist. Documenting the extent of outsiders' role in the citizenship decision will be a priority when the plaintiffs' search for new evidence begins, the Times said.

"That suggests very strongly that the directive here was ultimately a directive that came from the White House," said Thomas Wolf, counsel at the democracy program of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

The census tally, which includes everyone living in the United States regardless of immigration status, is used to reapportion political boundaries every 10 years to account for population changes. But a growing political movement is seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted during reapportionment.

If only citizens were counted for reapportionment, "California would give up several congressional seats to states that actually honor our Constitution and federal law," one of the most ardent anti-immigrant lawmakers, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said in February.

That is, for now, a distant prospect, the Times said. But some experts say they believe asking about citizenship could accomplish the same goal by discouraging undocumented immigrants, even legal ones, from participating in the census -- a development that could throw into question the results.

So, we will see. Actually, an accurate census is an extremely important to an efficient allocation of many, many government programs and to the efficient management of many commercial efforts. Protection against the intrusion of politics is widely seen as important -- so this is yet another debate producers should watch closely as it emerges, Washington Insider believes.

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