Last week, Congress passed a 14-day continuing resolution to keep the lights on in Washington, D.C., at least through Dec. 21. What happens between now and then to get a long-term spending bill (going beyond Dec. 21) is anybody’s guess.
At the front of the negotiations is Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Shelby has the role of chief negotiator (while he’s not fixing roads in Cullman and Decatur or building a sewer system in Uniontown).
The players are facing a three-dimensional chess board with many moving parts. According to Shelby, one of the big holdups is funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Estimates for the border wall have been in the range of $15 billion to $25 billion, a literal rounding error in a farm bill. Yet Congress has been stingy with money for Trump’s signature endeavor. The House of Representatives has offered $5 billion for the wall in its spending bill, while the Senate is at $1.6 billion.
For Democrats, border wall money is their hill to die on. There is no way they will allow Trump to have a symbolic victory at this stage in the game.
However, there also appears to be some other smaller hills Democrats do not want to cede in this fight, one of which directly impacts Alabama.
According to a Reuters story last week, congressional Democrats and those aligned with their views on illegal immigration are pushing to prevent the Commerce Department from including a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census. Earlier this year, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced his department’s intentions to ask 2020 Census respondents about their citizenship status.
Publicly, Democrats and allied activists say they don’t want the question on the Census survey because of concerns the question will frighten immigrants and they won’t participate in the count. It’s likely, however, that Democrats want immigrants here illegally to be included in the calculation because the Census will determine the apportionment of congressional seats and votes in the Electoral College.
States more tolerant of illegal immigration, primarily California, tend to be more Democratic. States not as liberal on immigration, such as Alabama (see HB 56), tend to be more Republican.
Forms for the 2020 Census must be printed next year. With a deadline looming, local governments and activist groups have sued the federal government to have the question removed, and the issue is expected to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, some see this next spending bill as an opportunity to have the question removed statutorily.
The question is a big deal for Alabama. As it stands, the state stands to lose one of its seven congressional seats. This is not because Alabama has not grown. It’s because Alabama has not grown as much as other states. And it’s much more difficult for Alabama to grow at a rate that rivals states that are actively adding to their population by means that aren’t legal, i.e., illegal immigration.
Losing a congressional seat would have a significant impact on Alabama. For starters, clout in Washington, D.C., would be diminished. Which member of Congress would be the odd man out? There could potentially be an incumbent versus incumbent in the 2022 midterm elections.
How will Alabama maintain its majority-minority district? The 7th Congressional District held by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham) has been losing population for the last two decades.
To maintain this status, the district’s borders will have to be stretched to include more geography populated by minorities. Might there be a redistricting scenario that will include portions of Mobile County in the 7th Congressional District so that a minority-majority status is preserved?
Earlier this year, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sued the federal government over plans to count illegal immigrants in the 2020 Census. The suit challenges the of use those numbers for congressional reapportionment, as well as the allocation of federal funding. Since then, Trump’s Department of Justice has signaled that it will fight this challenge.
In the interim, if the question of citizenship status is scrubbed from the next Census, there will be no way of knowing who to count and who not to count should the high court determine illegal immigrants are not to be included in reapportionment calculations.
All eyes are now on Shelby. Should language be included in the spending bill to remove the citizenship question from the Census? It won’t be without his stamp of approval.
Is there a scenario that Alabama’s senior senator can lard up a spending bill with enough goodies for the state that would match the cost to the state of losing a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives?
Watch to see how this plays out in the coming days because it will immediately tell us a lot about how Shelby will use his Senate appropriations chairmanship powers for the benefit of the state.