WASHINGTON — A week after a Justice Department official failed to show up for a hearing, Democrats blasted him Friday for not answering questions about the agency’s request to add a controversial question about citizenship to the 2020 Census.

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Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., joined others at a press conference last week criticizing the addition of a question about citizenship to the Census.
Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee,  criticized John Gore, acting assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, for refusing to answer questions, saying the committee is investigating how and why the agency requested the Census Bureau add a citizenship question.

“We have a job to do," Cummings of Maryland told Gore. “That is our job under the Constitution. That’s why we want you here. Your job is to answer our questions."

Gore was the lone witness at the committee hearing Friday on the status of the upcoming decennial count. The panel had agreed to subpoena Gore last week after he didn’t show for a hearing that featured several Census Bureau officials.

Lawmakers had planned to ask Gore about the Justice Department’s request to add the citizenship question. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced earlier this year that Census would add the question.

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Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, seen here at a different event in early April, spoke at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, April 17, 2018.
AP

Gore told lawmakers Friday he backed out of testifying last week when he learned there would be a non-government witness on the panel, which he said is the agency's practice.

Gore also told the committee he couldn’t answer many questions about the citizenship question in part because of pending lawsuits.

Several national civil rights groups, state attorneys general and other groups have sued over the decision to add the question. Some Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills to reverse the decision. They argue it could lead to an under count, particularly in communities of color.

In testy exchanges, Democrats took Gore to task.

‘’We’re not asking about your litigation…," Cummings said. "We are investigating the underlying facts of how and why did you and (Attorney General Jeff Sessions) … come to ask the Census Bureau to add a new untested citizenship question to the Census."

Gore defended the agency’s move saying it’s important to have racial and citizenship data at the Census block level.

“The Department of Justice is resolutely committed to the robust and evenhanded enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws and to free and fair elections for all Americans," he said. 

The Justice Department asked Census officials in December to “reinstate" the question, which was last asked in 1950 on the short-form Census questionnaire most people receive. Justice officials said the information would help in enforcing a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to protect against discrimination in voting.

Some Republicans have also defended the addition of the question.

Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., said the government needs to know who is within our borders. He said it’s unfair for some states, particularly those with sanctuary cities, to be able to count residents who are not citizens.

Earlier in the week, Ross said there has been support for the decision, including from some state attorney generals.

“It's not a novel question. It's been asked every year on the American Community Survey in the exact same form that we're planning to do on the census this year," Ross said Monday at the National Press Club. “Sixty-one million families have already been exposed to the question and the sky has not fallen. So I don't think the sky will fall when we add it to the Census itself in 2020."

Ross said the agency is taking steps to maximize participation, including an ad campaign.

“We're also putting the citizenship question last so that someone who for whatever reason feels uncomfortable with that question, at least they can deal easily with the questions with which they're not uncomfortable," he said.

Democrats repeatedly attempted Friday to get Gore to explain the agency process for deciding to request the addition of the question.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the committee, said he can make a witness appear, but “I cannot make someone talk."

Gowdy and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., had called for last week’s subpoena.

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Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill that would stop the Census Bureau from adding untested questions late in the planning process.
Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY

Maloney called Gore’s refusal to answer questions “unacceptable," noting that he didn’t show for last week’s hearing. “At the very least you should answer questions," she said.

Maloney dismissed Gore's argument that he couldn't answer questions because of litigation, saying the government gets sued all the time.

Maloney, who has introduced legislation that would stop the Census Bureau from adding untested questions late in the planning process, called on the committee to vote on a request to force Gore to answer the questions. It failed along partisan lines.

“We are not asking you one word about litigation…," Maloney said. "We are asking about the underlying facts and we have every right to ask about them. It’s our responsibility to ask about them."

USA TODAY reporter Herb Jackson contributed to this story.