Lawmakers on the House panel tasked with the Commerce Department’s 2020 funding faced an empty chair on Wednesday, neatly set up with a name placard and a water bottle, where Secretary Wilbur Ross would have been seated if he hadn’t rejected invitations to testify.
Cabinet secretaries and agency heads regularly visit Capitol Hill to advocate for their budget priorities, but this year Ross declined to appear before both Senate and House appropriators amid mounting controversy regarding his decision to include a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 census.
“Secretary Ross had no scheduled conflicts to speak of and no other excuse other than the fact that he simply didn’t want to appear before this subcommittee and be held personally accountable,” said New York Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee.
Ross wrote in a letter to the panel Tuesday that he would not attend the hearing, expressing concerns his presence “would unfortunately distract” from the department’s budget request. Rep. Robert Aderholt, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said he believed the secretary’s absence “stems around concerns that this hearing might focus more on political or legal issues than the budget itself.”
Some Democrats said they had planned to grill Ross on the citizenship question, as well as his financial disclosures.
“His absence disrespects this committee and the appropriations process as a whole,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Rep. Grace Meng agreed, calling Ross’s refusal to testify “an abandonment of his responsibilities” as the Commerce secretary. “It is an insult and an attack on transparency and trust,” the New York Democrat added.
The Commerce Department sent an array of officials and bureau heads to testify in Ross’s place. They appeared before the Senate on Tuesday to field questions, but House Democrats rejected the replacement witnesses on Wednesday, opting to accept testimony from Ross only – hence the empty chair for the roughly 45 minute session.
Republicans attacked the decision to feature Ross’s vacant seat rather than recognizing the 10 officials who showed up to testify.
“The Senate seemed to find their answers sufficient,” Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Graves said, “but yet today’s hearing has to be about an empty chair. So maybe it’s a little more theater today and less about accountability and transparency.”
Ross addressed the hearing in a statement afterward, saying he was “disappointed” the bureau heads were not allowed to discuss their proposed budgets for 2020.
His refusal to testify comes as Democrats are escalating their investigations into the rationale behind including the citizenship question on the census. Democratic members on the House Oversight Committee subpoenaed Ross and the Justice Department for documents related to the decision on Tuesday.
Ross has said he added the question at the request of the Justice Department, but court documents show he began considering the change and discussed it with administration staff and officials before the request was sent.
The citizenship question was most recently included in the Census in 1950. Ross says it is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Democrats argue it would decrease participation among immigrants and noncitizens, affecting congressional apportionment and allocation of government funding. The move has been blocked by two federal judges, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue this summer.