Commerce secretary seeks to delay high-profile congressional hearing

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is seeking to postpone his March 14 appearance before the House Oversight Committee, citing Democrats’ demands for documents and information ahead of the high-profile hearing, according to a letter that the agency sent Tuesday to that panel and obtained by ABC News.

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The Commerce Department’s apparent effort to delay the hearing is the latest clash between the Trump administration and House Democrats on the issue of congressional oversight. The new majority and the administration, accustomed to unified GOP control of the government, have recently battled over congressional documents and interview requests across the Trump administration.

Ross’ appearance promised to be one of the highest-profile hearings of the new session of Congress and could make Ross among the first Cabinet secretaries to appear before the House since the new session of Congress.

Democrats were expected to question Ross on efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, a controversial move that has prompted legal challenges. Advocates have alleged a racist and discriminatory motivation for including the question.

PHOTO: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross takes part in a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Aug. 16, 2018.Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, FILE
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross takes part in a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Aug. 16, 2018.

The letter from the Commerce Department references a communication from Democrats on the Oversight Committee last month that requested a large-scale document production related to Ross’s financial disclosures and ethics obligations.

“In the days following our receipt of that letter, it became clear that the Committee intended to expand the scope of the March 14 hearing to ask the Secretary questions about his personal finances and ethics obligations – topics that we did not anticipate nor expect to be covered in such detail and depth based on the frequent and cordial communications between our staffs,” it reads.

Ross still intends to appear before the committee, according to the letter, but the department says more time is needed to produce the relevant documents and prepare for a broad range of issues.

The Commerce Department referred ABC News back to its previous statements and did not comment further.

“As soon as we receive, in writing, a complete list of the subject matter and scope about which the Committee intends to question the Secretary, my office will work with your staff to confirm a hearing date,” the letter says.

In January, a federal judge in New York blocked the Trump administration from asking about citizenship in the 2020 census, finding that Ross “violated the public trust” in his effort to insert the citizenship question, calling his decision to do so “arbitrary and capricious.”

His appearance before the committee also has legal implications for the census cases to be heard before the Supreme Court in April.

Ross is named in the suits, and he is the central figure in the case given what a Southern District of New York judge called his “arbitrary and capricious” rationale for including a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

A spokesperson for House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.