A Closer Look at The White House 'Takeover' of The Census
The controversy over White House plans to play a more direct role in overseeing the operations of the U.S. Bureau of the Census as some sort of “political grab” reflects, more than anything else, an astounding ignorance of how the Census operates.
The controversy over White House plans to play a more direct role in overseeing the operations of the U.S. Bureau of the Census as some sort of “political grab” reflects, more than anything else, an astounding ignorance of how the Census operates. The charge is that having the Census Bureau director report directly to Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, would allow him to manipulate the 2010 population count for partisan advantage in reapportionment and redistricting.
That contrasts with the myth under President George W. Bush, where he kept the Census Bureau “independent.”
This became an issue when President Obama surprised most of us this month with his nomination of Senator Judd Gregg, since then declined, to be Commerce Secretary. Gregg had in the past voted to eliminate this Commerce Department and been a strong opponent of providing needed resources for the 2000 Census. The move raised serious concerns by black and Latino leaders working for an accurate count of their communities in the 2010 Census. Nomination of the New Hampshire Republican, given his track record, was grounds for reasonable questions about the appropriateness of his candidacy for the post.
The reactions, largely by Republicans, to the White House’s announced plan to play a more direct role with the Census have been either purely political or based on ignorance of the way the federal government works. The Census Bureau or any other agency under a full department is overseen directly or indirectly by the White House.
When the Census Bureau ran into problems last year with management of its failed handheld computers program that would have automated the population count, the Bush White House set up a special group inside of Commerce to oversee the matter. The Commerce Secretary under Bush was in no way an independent player “protecting” the Census Bureau from partisan influences.
Accepting these assertions would be tantamount to making up history from scratch. It is not possible for the White House or anyone else to manipulate the 2010 population count to rig reapportionment or redistricting in favor of one party or the other. The Census Bureau has a well-developed set of protocols and procedures to assure as objective a population count as possible. No one, neither a powerful figure like Emmanuel nor even the President, can manipulate this process.
Finally, influencing broader policy issues on the use of Census data, such as using sampling to adjust population counts, is most definitely a political process beyond the purview of the bureau. It would not be affected by who the Census Bureau reports to. Whether it is the White House or the Commerce Secretary, this is an issue that would be framed by whoever is President.
The use of sampling for adjusting Census numbers is ultimately under the jurisdiction of the federal courts. In addition, the political redistricting process is something that is overseen by the Department of Justice in its administration of the Voting Rights Act. And as we have seen with the Bush Administration, the Justice Department has certainly not been kept “independent” of politics.
By taking a direct interest in the 2010 Census, President Obama will be assuring that this population count, only 15 months away, would get the attention and resources needed to make it accurate and assure that hard-to-count populations are included. Currently, there are thousands of Census staff working hard to make sure that the 2010 Census is the most accurate and fairest possible. President Obama is telling them he supports them fully and understands the importance of the 2010 Census to the country. It is the critics who seem to want to politicize this situation, at the cost of turning the 2010 count into a disaster and tremendous waste of money.
(Angelo Falcón is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, based in New York City. He chairs the Latino Census Network and is a member of the Census Advisory Committee on the Hispanic Population, and the national steering committee of the Census Information Centers Program of the Census Bureau. Email: [email protected])