- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The looming 2010 census has gotten considerable attention in Washington. In most cases, it has not been constructive. White House attempts to run the census in-house had two effects. First, they politicized our nation’s largest peacetime mobilization. Second, they implied the Census Bureau is incapable of maintaining its high success rate.

Recent actions by the administration, while of a lower profile, elevate fresh concerns about the integrity and accuracy of the 2010 decennial. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has cautiously said he knows of “no plans” to test a statistical theory that adjusts census data.

Mr. Locke has retained as a consultant on the census former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt. An advocate for the manipulation of census data, Mr. Prewitt commissioned an analysis of this theory in 1999. It found that using statistical models to draw conclusions about people who were missed during the counting only subjected the census to greater inaccuracy. The theory was scrapped.

Robert M. Groves, President Obama’s appointee to head the Census Bureau, will have his confirmation hearing Friday. Mr. Groves pressed the case for statistical adjustment while at the bureau in 1990. He was rebuffed. Senators should press him to go further than claiming no knowledge of plans to adjust census results and to rule it out entirely. Or describe a scenario in which he would use it.

Why should the adjustment theory be taken off the table? Because its inaccuracies would skew the distribution of untold billions in public funds at all levels of government. Congressional Republicans and Democrats together have supported ample funding for the bureau’s historic effort to minimize the already meager undercount.

Statistical sampling also would usher in an era of political manipulation of census results. During a Republican administration, the samples would skew results to that party’s advantage. During a Democratic administration, the samples would artificially boost population in Democratic strongholds. Manipulating population impacts the balance of power in federal, state and local government. The temptation could prove too great for eager partisans.

Were Mr. Groves and Mr. Prewitt to produce an adjusted census count, they surely would subject the bureau to a messy legal and legislative fight after the fact. That’s just another good reason for Mr. Groves to scrap the idea.

In media reports of a questionnaire Mr. Groves completed in advance of his hearing, he characterized congressional Republicans as having been the source of efforts to politicize the census. This is patently absurd; with its attempts to circumvent the Commerce Department, the White House clearly crossed that line.

This confusing attempt at creating straw men out of House Republicans is not a harbinger of good things. The census has been apolitical for 219 years - this is not redistricting - and Republicans merely have asked that this tradition be preserved. While redistricting is a partisan tug of war, the data on which it is based should be unassailable.

The enumeration of the census is an Article I function of the Constitution that Congress has assigned to the Commerce Department. However, Congress retains its oversight responsibility. Led by our Oversight subcommittee Chairman William Lacy Clay, Missouri Democrat, we are merely doing our job.

Mr. Groves can move swiftly to vanquish another threat to the integrity of the 2010 census. The infamous political advocacy group ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is a member of the Census Partnership Program. Partners help recruit census takers. ACORN is an organization enamored of using government forms to commit fraud. The proposition of putting millions of census forms in its hands seems counterintuitive, to say the least.

On Monday, my Republican colleagues and I sent a letter to the bureau asking it to reconsider ACORN as a partner. According to the bureau’s guidelines for participation, partners must not “distract from the Census Bureau’s mission.” If Mr. Groves thinks ACORN’s reputation reflects positively on the bureau’s mission, we have requested that he defend that position in writing to Congress.

Despite the litany of red flags from the administration, Congress should resist temptation to prejudge Mr. Groves. He can reassure the country that the 2010 census will be accurate and apolitical by ruling out tampering with census results and by dismissing ACORN. Or he can undermine the confidence of Congress and the American people. I respectfully encourage Mr. Groves to choose the former.

Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina is the ranking Republican member of the House of Representatives’ Oversight subcommittee on information policy, census, and national archives.

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