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With census move, Team Trump continues its rejection of expertise

Career officials and experts keep trying to help the Trump administration avoid bad decisions. It's not going well.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross gestures as he leaves after addressing delegates at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in east London, on November 6, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross gestures as he leaves after addressing delegates at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in east London, on November 6, 2017.

The Trump administration touched off another ugly and avoidable fight this week, announcing that for the first time in 70 years, the decennial census will include a question about citizenship status. It didn't take long before opponents of the policy filed lawsuits.

But it also didn't take long for the White House to start lying about the move. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters yesterday, for example, "This is a question that's been included in every census since 1965." An NPR fact-check soon followed, and not surprisingly, Sanders' claim isn't even close to being true. (The first hint something was amiss: there was no decennial census in 1965.)

Perhaps the press secretary would've been better able to answer questions about the administration's approach to the census if she'd consulted with experts -- though in this case, Team Trump clearly doesn't have any use for expertise. TPM reported this morning:

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ decision Monday to add a controversial question on citizenship to the 2020 census came in the face of opposition from career officials at the Census Bureau who fear it will depress response rates, especially from immigrants.Two people with knowledge of the deliberations said career leaders in the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, had scrambled to come up with alternatives to adding the question. Those efforts were unsuccessful.

This dovetails nicely with a report yesterday from the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, who highlighted "a letter from former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, which argues that adding the [citizenship] question now would be 'highly risky,' could have 'unexpected' consequences and will 'considerably increase the risks' of an inaccurate count."

There are two key aspects to this. The first, obviously, is the Trump administration's willingness -- indeed, its eagerness -- to undermine the integrity of the census to advance its partisan political goals.

And the second is the Trump administration's disdain for expertise.

In the case of the census, Wilbur Ross could've listened to the career officials and former directors from both parties, but knowledge and institutional history stood in the way of Donald Trump's political plans -- and so the experts' guidance was ignored.

And if that seems like a familiar dynamic, it's not your imagination. At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney has ignored career officials and experts when siding with the payday lending industry. At the Labor Department, Secretary Alexander Acosta ignored career officials and experts when shaping a policy on workers' tips and gratuities.

NBC News had an especially good example of this last week, reporting, "The Trump administration’s abrupt cancellation of a federal program to prevent teen pregnancy last year was directed by political appointees over the objections of career experts in the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program, according to internal notes and emails obtained by NBC News."

A Washington Post analysis in early February added some related examples, noting:

There are 2.8 million people who work for the federal government.... It also includes a lot of people whose jobs — and careers — are predicated on knowing a lot about very specific things: foreign countries or the weather or how the economy moves around. [...]The government employs a lot of people who know a lot about a lot of things and, even if they don’t have answers to questions at the ready, often know how to find those answers. When those answers aren’t helpful, though, the Trump administration often doesn’t embrace them.

In July 2011, at the height of the GOP's debt ceiling crisis, the New York Times' David Brooks made the case that Republicans were no longer a "normal" political party, in part because its members "do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities."

Nearly seven years later, the party is vastly worse when it comes to rejecting the judgment of those who know what they're talking about.