Congress

House panel questions an empty chair because Wilbur Ross doesn’t show up

The made-for-CSPAN moment occurred after Ross canceled with a House Appropriations panel

A news photographer takes a shot of the empty witness chair set for Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday. Ross did not attend. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One congressional subcommittee decided to shirk the typically mundane, policy-focused nature of its hearings on Wednesday by questioning an empty chair.

The made-for-C-SPAN moment came after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross canceled his appearance in front of the House Appropriations panel that determines how much funding his department receives and how they can spend it.

“Secretary Ross had no schedule 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,” New York Democratic Rep. José E. Serrano said to an empty chair, from which Ross was supposed to be testifying on his fiscal 2020 budget request.

The hearing came just one day after a Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee hosted 10 Commerce officials to testify on various aspects of its fiscal 2020 budget request after Ross also decided not to.

The same offer was made to the House panel, and the officials actually showed up to the hearing, despite the fact Serrano said only Ross would be allowed to testify.

Republicans on the committee were not particularly happy with that decision and urged Serrano to allow the officials to answer questions about the budget request.

“You have people here, ready to answer the questions,” Rep. Tom Graves said. “The Senate seemed to find their answers sufficient.”

“Yet today’s hearing has to be about an empty chair, so maybe it’s a little bit more theater today and less about accountability and transparency,” the Georgia Republican continued.

Tensions between congressional Democrats and the Commerce Department have been high since it tried to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Many Democrats believe such an addition was intended to discourage undocumented immigrants from filling out the once-a-decade count of all residents, which determines how many congressional districts each state will have for the next 10 years.

That issue is currently working its way through the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on April 23, and it is likely to rule before the end of June when its term concludes.

Ross’ testimony before the subcommittees would likely have included questions about the discussions that led the administration to propose including the citizenship question. Serrano believes that is why he didn’t show up.

“We just think he had an unpleasant situation last year after not telling us the truth about the census question. He said it was from the Justice Department, and then [reporters] found out that it was his input, so he doesn’t want to face that,” Serrano said after the hearing ended. “But on Appropriations, it’s never always about dollars. It’s also about policy.”

The top Democrat on the Senate subcommittee also criticized Ross’ decision not to appear before Congress, saying during that chamber’s hearing on Tuesday she was disappointed by his decision.

“I think it is unfortunate that the secretary is not here with us today,” New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said. “Even after the committee coordinated with his office on his schedule, even after the chairman contacted his office: he has declined to appear to defend his department’s $12.2 billion budget request, to explain why he misled this committee last year regarding the origin of the citizenship question and to answer why the budget does not include funding for the 2020 census that he has told us was critical.”

After the House subcommittee’s members gave their statements and mentioned the questions they would have liked to ask, Serrano recessed the committee subject to the call of the chair — a procedural maneuver that would allow him to reconvene should Ross decide to testify.

But Serrano said he doesn’t expect that to happen. Nor does Serrano expect to hold a hearing with the officials who testified in front of his Senate colleagues.

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