In a move with major political implications for voting, districting and representation in future elections, the Obama administration has demanded oversight of the 2010 U.S. census.
The move has Republicans crying foul, alleging that transferring the power of census-taking from the Commerce Department, which normally oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, to the White House is an attempt to manipulate redistricting of congressional seats.
“This action appears to be motivated by politics, rather than the interests of our country,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “The United States Census should remain independent of politics; it should not be directed by political operatives working out of the White House.”
The Washington Post’s Mary Ann Akers reports a senior Republican aide telling her that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has no business overseeing the headcount that will shape the future of U.S. elections.
“With all of its political implications,” the aide reportedly said, “hijacking the census from the Commerce Department and letting it be run out of Rahm’s office is like putting PETA in charge of issuing hunting permits.”
Congressional Quarterly reports that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Government Reform Committee, said the proposed move may even be in violation of federal law.
“Any attempt by the Obama administration to circumvent the census process for their political benefit will be met with fierce opposition,” said Issa. “This ill-conceived proposal undermines a constitutionally obligated process that speaks to the very heart of our democracy.”
Bruce Chapman, director of the U.S. Census Bureau under President Reagan, explains the Republican objection and why the census is so important in his Discovery blog:
“Everyone knows that it is possible to organize a decennial census in a way that benefits one party or another politically,” Chapman writes. “One way to effectuate this otherwise unpalatable departure from the Census Bureau’s 200-year history of non-partisanship is to put the Bureau administratively under direction of the politicos in the White House. In reality, that would be a sure invitation to cook the books on the highly consequential count of Americans.”
Chapman also claims, “The only reason the White House would want to be involved is in figuring out how to add more voting power to certain states and groups within states.”
The decennial census, taken every 10 years, generates maps and numbers then used to draw congressional districts. Ideally the census director conducts the count in a non-partisan manner under the authority granted by U.S. code to the secretary of Commerce.
Congressional Quarterly, however, announced earlier this week that a senior White House official reported the director of the Census Bureau will now report directly to the White House and not the secretary of Commerce.
CQ later updated its report, stating that the White House “took a small step back from what the senior official told CQ” by announcing that the director of the Census Bureau would “work with the high-level officials rather than report directly to them.”
Secretary of Commerce nominee, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
Several news outlets speculated that the White House power play was prompted by objections from minority group leaders over Obama’s nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to be secretary of Commerce, the office responsible for the census. Many of the groups are concerned about how particularly Hispanics will be counted in the next census, since the numbers affect both redistricting and federal funding based on demographic changes over the past decade.
Several minority leaders have expressed dismay over Obama’s nomination of a Republican with a questionable track record on the census.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said in a statement, “Sen. Gregg’s record of previously voting to abolish the Commerce Department and his attempts to block President Bill Clinton’s efforts to secure adequate funding for the 2000 census raise troubling concerns.”
A National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials spokesman told Politico, “Secretary of Commerce-designate Judd Gregg’s record raises serious questions about his willingness to ensure that the 2010 census produces the most accurate possible count of the nation’s population.”
An editorial in the Hispanic newspaper La Opinion went further, emphasizing a fear that Gregg may not place a high enough priority on getting an accurate count.
“We cannot afford this risk,” the paper opined.
At a White House briefing, however, spokesman Robert Gibbs denied that the change was linked to worries over Gregg’s nomination.
MSNBC reports a White House spokesman further arguing that Obama’s action actually has historical precedent.
“From the first days of the transition the census has been a priority for the president, and a process he wanted to reevaluate,” the spokesman reportedly 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.”
Former Census Bureau Chief Chapman, however, disagrees.
“Simply put, there is no excuse for this idea,” Chapman writes. “It is not true that the Census Bureau has ever been under the direct management of the White House, and for good reason. Even if angels were in charge of the executive mansion, if the nation’s premier statistical agency were placed under White House direction, the danger to public trust would be enormous. The Decennial count is one of the few federal functions specifically described in the Constitution itself and must be operated above suspicion of politics.”
Chapman added, “Power flows from an accurate census count. Everyone involved for years has seen the count therefore as a sacred trust. It must not be polluted with even a semblance of presidential meddling.”
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