Amid Citizenship Question Lawsuits, Census Bureau Nominee Faces Confirmation

President Trump's nominee for the Census Bureau's next director, Steven Dillingham, is taking one step closer to filling a key leadership post for the 2020 census that's been empty for more than a year.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are questioning Dillingham Wednesday during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. It's not clear when the committee members will vote on whether to send his nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.

If confirmed, Dillingham would lead the federal government's largest statistical agency as it embarks on the first U.S. census to be conducted mainly online. As its director, he would also join multiple lawsuits against the Census Bureau over a newly added citizenship question that could disrupt the final months of preparation for the constitutionally-mandated head count of every person living in the country.

In the meantime, without permanent leadership, the bureau has been ramping up preparations for the 2020 census, set to kick off in rural Alaska in January of that year. After John Thompson stepped down in an earlier-than-expected retirement last June, the bureau has been led by Acting Director Ron Jarmin, a career staffer who previously led the Census Bureau's economic programs.

Dillingham, who has a Ph.D in political science from the University of South Carolina, has been nominated for the bureau's top job without any prior experience working at the agency. But he did lead smaller federal statistical agencies during both Bush administrations, with stints at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which he left during the Obama administration. Under President Trump, he has led the Peace Corps Office of Strategic Information, Research, and Planning.

Dillingham has not responded to NPR's interview requests.

Katherine Wallman, a former chief statistician at the White House's Office of Management and Budget, worked with Dillingham during his time at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. She says his past service as a political appointee in prior administrations who reported to policy officials could help him as the head of the Census Bureau, which is overseen by the Commerce Department.

"I think that's very valuable experience to know how to work in that environment," Wallman says.

As the new Census Bureau director, Dillingham would step into six lawsuits over Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' decision to add the controversial question about U.S. citizenship status to the 2020 census. Ross has said he approved adding the question because the Justice Department needs the responses to better enforce the Voting Rights Act's protections for racial and language minorities against discrimination.

The Census Bureau's chief scientist and other researchers, however, urged Ross to rely instead on existing government records about citizenship status to meet the Justice Department's needs. They also warned Ross that using the census to ask about citizenship status could discourage households with noncitizens, including immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, from participating in the head count.

That, in turn, could harm the accuracy of the information collected from the census. The population count is used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state receives after the census, not to mention its portion of an estimated $800 billion a year in federal funding for schools, roads and other public institutions and services.

Shortly after the White House announced Dillingham as the nominee in July, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, expressed concerns about his past experience as an adviser to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative group that tries to shape state laws.

"Dr. Dillingham needs to reject the [Trump administration's] attempt to add a citizenship question," Maloney said in a written statement. "If he does not, I believe the Senate should reject his nomination."

So far, Dillingham has not publicly commented about the question.

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