The Political Stakes Are High as U.S. Counts Noses

Published: February 19, 2009

WASHINGTON — If they were injected with truth serum, most politicians in Washington would admit they do not really care much who runs the Commerce Department. But many of the most astute politicians in both parties care very much who runs the Census Bureau.

That’s why Senator Judd Gregg’s withdrawal as President Obama’s nominee for commerce secretary provoked such a furor among Republicans: they concluded that he pulled out because of White House plans to take control of the Census Bureau, part of the department he would have run. The White House denied it was trying to politicize the census, but the damage was done.

While most Americans do not think much about the census, it looms large in the lives of the nation’s political leaders, with the next decennial nose-count due next year. The constitutionally mandated “enumeration” determines how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, and helps to determine where the district lines are drawn within each state. It will also shift billions upon billions of federal dollars over the next decade from some parts of the country to others because of population-driven financing formulas.

The parties have been at loggerheads for years over how to conduct the census. Most everyone agrees that the traditional method — mail-back surveys and door-knocking follow-ups — fails to count millions of Americans. Democrats argue that the solution is to use statistical sampling models to extrapolate figures for the uncounted people. If minorities, immigrants, the poor and the homeless are the most likely to be undercounted, then such sampling would presumably benefit the Democrats.


Republicans, for their part, argue that statistical sampling is unreliable and that the Constitution mandates an actual count. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, that under current law, sampling techniques could not be used to reapportion House seats from one state to another. But some experts still believe that it could be used in drawing district lines within the states, and to determine money flows.

Mr. Gregg’s rise and fall brought that rift to the forefront. After Mr. Obama announced his nomination, the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Association of Latino Officials and others complained about having a Republican heading the department overseeing the census. The White House responded with a statement meant to assuage them, but which in the end provoked a Republican outcry and may have helped precipitate Mr. Gregg’s withdrawal.

The White House statement said: “There is historic precedent for the director of the census, who works for the commerce secretary and the president, to work closely with White House senior management, given the number of decisions that will have to be put before the president. We plan to return to that model in this administration.”

Republicans quickly took that to mean that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, would be in charge of the census. Nothing could be more alarming for them, given Mr. Emanuel’s history as a fierce partisan and a former head of the campaign committee that helped orchestrate the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.

When Mr. Gregg pulled out last week, he issued a statement saying he had “found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the census, there are irresolvable conflicts for me.” He did not elaborate, and at a news conference later that day, he minimized the census dispute, calling it “only a slight issue.” Mr. Obama’s aides brushed the matter aside, saying the Census Bureau was never going to be taken out of the Commerce Department, only instructed to coordinate its efforts with the White House, as in the past.

Karl Rove, the political strategist for former President George W. Bush, said the episode underscored the stakes in the 2010 census. “It shows how difficult and fraught with implications this is,” he said in an interview. “Even small changes in policy can have big ramifications.”

He cited an example: The census counts military personnel deployed overseas as residents of the states where they deployed from, Mr. Rove said, but it has no policy regarding religious missionaries living abroad. After the 2000 census, he said, that made the difference between assignment of a House seat to North Carolina or to Utah, home of many Mormon missionaries.

Democrats do not disagree about the consequences of the upcoming census. But they said Republicans had drummed up false issues. Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the 2000 census under former President Bill Clinton, said the bureau always answered to the White House as well as the commerce secretary, and he saw no change under Mr. Obama. As for politicization, he said an appointed commerce secretary is just as liable to politicize the census as the White House is.

“The census has many bosses,” Mr. Prewitt said in an interview. “The idea that somehow the White House could control the census in a manner that would have implications for the allocation of seats to the states or to the redistricting process is silly.”

Mr. Obama now has to pick another commerce secretary to replace Mr. Gregg. But he also has to pick a director of the Census Bureau itself. Mr. Prewitt denied speculation that he would return to do the job again. “That’s just chatter in the system,” he said.


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