- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001

The new census has set off a new round of legal challenges.
So far, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Stamford, Conn., and Inglewood, Calif., have filed suits against the government. Others are sure to follow.
Utah is suing, too. It is arguing the Census Bureau improperly failed to count 11,176 state residents who were serving overseas as missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Legal disputes following a census are hardly new. In fact, it has come to be expected. After all, census totals have tremendous significance. They dictate fundamental shifts of political power and determine how staggering sums of federal money will be dispensed.
"The census and its function seem too politically potent [for politicians and state officials] to ignore, even though the tradition has been to view the census as sacrosanct and off-limits to political meddling," said economist Peyton Young of the Brookings Institution.
In the past few years, the most prominent census battles have been fought in Congress. There, Republicans fended off Democrats favoring the use of statistically adjusted census totals to compensate for an expected undercount of minorities.
Republicans did so because it is thought that people traditionally missed in the census tend to vote as Democrats. So both parties leaders have assumed that adding to the head count would swell Democratic ranks and disadvantage Republicans.
Secretary of Commerce Donald L. Evans seemed to settle that issue on March 6, when he said statistically adjusted head-count totals cannot be used for redrawing the nations voting-district boundaries. But in the following weeks, mayors, county executives, borough bosses and city councils have taken up the fight, battling his decision in the courts.
Historians say the true power of the census and the rationale for keeping it nonpartisan is rarely explained. As they see it, the Founding Fathers made U.S. democracy stable by doing two things:
They mandated a decennial census and the statistical system that flowed from it. And they ordered that congressional seats be redistributed based on decennial census numbers.
The framers foresaw that representatives of the 13 colonies would want to perpetuate their congressional seats and their power, even though new states might join the union and come to have larger populations.
Indeed, Census 2000 results illustrate how populations can grow and change things.
The new numbers reveal that because of immigration, the U.S. population has grown more rapidly than anticipated and now numbers 281,421,906 persons, with 6.8 million saying they belong to two or more races.
About 211.5 million people describe themselves as white only and 34.7 million as black only. Moreover, 35.3 million U.S. residents call themselves Hispanics. So Hispanics — who may be of any race — now constitute 13 percent of the population and are the largest minority.
There were about 50 lawsuits following the 1990 census. Most were thrown out and none succeeded.
But long before that — in 1920 — a stubborn Congress overwhelmingly populated by representatives from rural districts and small towns rejected the census entirely.
The representatives refused to accept that the U.S. population had shifted from farms to cities. Consequently, Congress stayed with the 1910 head count and refused to reallocate seats in the House of Representatives.
"By the late 1920s, that had created big problems. It took 45 years for Congress to resolve the issues resulting from that decision," said census historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Few expect a similar congressional revolt again. Thats partially because accurate census data has become the indispensable lifeblood of huge segments of business and industry, as well as academics and federal, state and local government planners.
Former Census Bureau directors, statisticians, scholars and others who should know say the Census Bureau has been hurt because politicians are "politicizing the census." Which means that officeholders of both parties have increasingly accused bureau officials of manipulating census data for the political gain of the party in power.
"You could make the argument that such attacks are a threat to the entire U.S. statistical system. They damage the assumption of objectivity," said Miss Anderson, the historian.
Census Bureau employees fiercely protest they are nonpartisan. They claim scientific objectivity has marked the bureaus efforts since 1880, when professionals replaced U.S. marshals as census-data gatherers.
"Being nonpartisan is part of the Census Bureau culture," said Paula Schneider, one of the bureaus highest-ranking officials. She retired in April after 33 years at the bureau.
Mrs. Schneider said, "At the risk of seeming fractious, when political appointees come into the bureau, we tell them outright we will not change what we say in reports or alter press releases to benefit any party."
Kenneth Prewitt, director of graduate faculty at New Yorks New School for Social Research, was the Census Bureau director until January.
"No one has ever considered what census employees would have to do to rig the numbers to get a certain result," he said. "Its hard to know how youd do it. Youd need precise and minute knowledge of redistricting and voter turnout. People in know nothing about those processes. Fixing the numbers would present a gigantic problem, involving a large number of people. It could never be kept quiet."
Still, the bureaus supposed link to a given administration can seem to have substance because the bureau is a unit of the Commerce Department, and the secretary of commerce is a member of the presidents Cabinet. In recent Democratic and Republican administrations, the post has been awarded to the presidents political campaign manager.
Whats more, the Census Bureau director — typically a politically passive statistician or social scientist — also is a presidential appointee and serves at the discretion of the president. President Bush has not yet appointed a director. The bureau is currently headed by acting Director William G. Barron, a veteran civil service professional.
University of Michigan research scientist Barbara E. Bryant headed the Census Bureau from 1989 to 1993.
"Every census director over a 30-year period has advocated making the bureau an independent agency," she said. "But the idea has never gone far in Congress."
In 1997, Rep. Steve Horn, California Republican, introduced legislation to meld the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis into a single statistics agency. Hearings on that measure were held over a two-day period.
Witnesses at the hearings — some of the nations top statisticians and scholars — outlined the serious problems confronting the Census Bureau and the 10 other federal agencies.
The specialists argued for immediate change. But the issue faded.
Since then, said Miss Schneider, the attacks on the Census Bureau and its work have only gotten worse. And she says, "I just wish Congress and the administration could realize the damage the bickering does."


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