Director Steven Dillingham told the House Oversight Committee he had no heads-up from the White House about the presidential memorandum on the apportionment tally. He said he learned of the order from a newspaper article and first saw the actual order "when it was posted on the web."
Dillingham also declined to say whether the bureau needed additional time to complete the 2020 census due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration this spring requested Congress extend the completion deadlines by four months, but several House Democrats said they are concerned the administration has since backed away from that request.
The conversation about extending the timeframe "wasn't at my level," Dillingham testified. He said his focus is moving "as rapidly as possible and to get a complete and accurate count as soon as possible."
Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat, accused Dillingham of ceding control of the traditionally non-political census operation.
"It seems like there's an obvious pattern that you are not in control of the Census Bureau, and the political appointees of this administration are," Gomez said.
Dillingham responded that he is "not involved directly with the Hill negotiations on revising the schedule."
Dillingham's predecessor as Census director, John Thompson, testified at the hearing that "not extending those deadlines is going to put tremendous pressure on the Census Bureau."
"It's not clear what kind of quality counts they can produce if they don't get the extension, so it could be a really big problem," Thompson said.
About 63% of households have responded to the 2020 census. To boost response rates, it now plans to send an additional mailing to some households in September and begin telephone calls to some households that have not replied.
This census is the first that any household may answer online, and Dillingham said that since the website launched, it "has not had a single minute of downtime."
'I cannot answer or even give my personal views'
Dillingham told the panel that implementation of the citizenship order is underway as opponents challenge the directive in lawsuits.
"We have experts at the Census Bureau that are now beginning the process of looking at methodologies," he said. "That process is just beginning. The presidential memoranda just came out last week."
He said the group has not yet produced any reports on its work.
Dillingham declined to express his views on the directive itself, saying he is "not in a position where I can express my opinions with regard to the policy."
"I cannot answer or even give my personal views because my job as the Census Bureau director will be to execute the 2020 census," Dillingham said.
The order drew swift criticism from advocates for minorities and immigrant communities, including those who successfully fought the administration's attempt to include a citizenship question on the census form.
After his Supreme Court loss, Trump directed the Census Bureau
to collect citizenship data on immigration status from other federal and state agencies. The so-called administrative records was the method the bureau officials originally recommended when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked the agency to consider asking a citizenship question.