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Inside the House Democrats’ strategy to fix a GOP xenophobic citizenship bill

By Michael Jones

Marjorie Taylor Greene garnered most of the national headlines yesterday for her failed attempt to remove Mike Johnson as speaker. But the House took another vote on a controversial bill that attracted less attention—even though it would transform how the federal government doles out resources to states and localities and determines political representation. 

The bill, entitled the Equal Representation Act, would require the federal government to include a citizenship question in the decennial US Census and split congressional districts by the population of US citizens, not total residents, as the Constitution dictates.

As I mentioned in my column two weeks ago, the Trump administration attempted to force the citizenship question on the 2020 Census but was blocked by the Supreme Court. The former president’s allies have included a citizenship question in the Heritage Foundation-crafted agenda Trump is expected to execute if he is re-elected in November. And while Senate Democrats and the White House will prevent the bill, which passed with unanimous Republican support, total Democratic opposition and is strongly opposed by the Biden administration, from becoming law this year, it will likely be introduced again and passed under a GOP-controlled House and Senate. 

What stood out to me ahead of the debate and passage of the bill were a trio of amendments House Democrats submitted for consideration. None were allowed, but they served as a reminder of the ways misrepresentation erodes our democracy and the role federal lawmakers have in ending or exacerbating the US’s backslide. 

Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.), who tried to add the text of a bill that would require the government to count incarcerated people at their last place of residence rather than the prison where they are held at the time of the Census, accused Republicans of applying separate standards to different groups.

“What they are doing is saying certain people who live in this country don’t deserve representation, regardless of their legal status,” Ross told me in an interview this week. “And my bill is saying, ‘Well, if you think that’s so important, why do you want a bunch of people who don’t live in your district to count in your area when you’re not representing them?”

House Democratic leadership said ahead of the vote that the citizenship question has been purposefully left off the census because its inclusion discourages many migrants of varying legal status and citizens alike from completing the form, which leads to an undercounting of persons—including those who are most likely paying taxes and here legally.

Melanie Stansbury, a first-term member from New Mexico, submitted a rejected amendment that would call for the government to conduct a study on barriers to Hispanic census representation in response to attempts by House Republicans to dilute the minority vote.

“In New Mexico, we had a severe undercount in 2010,” Stansbury said. “So there was a huge focus in 2020 to make sure that we got an accurate Census count because literally millions of dollars flow to our communities for health care, for social services, childcare—everything that families need to be able to thrive.”

Due largely to partisan gerrymandering, the upcoming 2024 election will feature around 30 competitive seats, split evenly between the two parties. That number would more than double, according to a Duke University study, if redistricting that favored one party was prohibited.

Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-N.C.) proposed legislation to amend the Equal Representation Act to implement independent redistricting commissions in every state, preventing politicians from manipulating electoral outcomes.

“I think Republicans’ goals are to have fewer people to vote,” Nickel told me. “They do better when fewer people vote. So everything they do is about putting up barriers to voting, making it harder because they’re going to win that way. And we’re just playing the position of getting more people to vote because it’s better for democracy.”

Nickel told me his opposition to gerrymandering is less about giving Democrats a leg-up by juicing voter turnout because his party is on the right side of the issues.

“If the majority of the country could decide on what we do, they’re siding with us most of the time,” he said. “All of these issues, we’re representing the opinion of the majority of the country.”

From the outside looking in, it may seem foolish to advance bills that have little to no chance of becoming law. And Stansbury admitted it’s frustrating to be in the minority party because you don’t control the floor or hold sway over which bills receive votes.

“We try to use every tool we can to elevate issues,” she said. “Whether that’s doing so in committee, through amendments to bills—even if they’re not made in order—to have an opportunity to talk about it, and of course through the floor debate, which is the opportunity for the American people to hear your thoughts about it.”

Ross expressed a similar point of view.

“The situation is this: We have a platform where we are members of Congress. It is our duty even if we are not in the majority to fight for the people who are unrepresented,” she said. “And we absolutely have got to turn over every rock and take every opportunity.”

Michael Jones is an independent Capitol Hill correspondent and contributor for COURIER. He is the author of Once Upon a Hill, a newsletter about Congressional politics.

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