- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama on Thursday selected Robert M. Groves to be the next census director, turning to a survey researcher who has clashed with Republicans over the use of statistical sampling to lead the high-stakes head count.

The White House announced Obama’s intention to nominate Groves, a former Census Bureau associate director of statistical design from 1990-92. If confirmed by the Senate, Groves will take the helm less than a year before the census, which has been beset by partisan bickering and will be used to apportion House seats and allocate billions in federal dollars.

Groves, 60, has spent decades researching ways to improve survey response rates, helping design surveys for agencies from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to the EPA and National Institutes of Health.

“The decennial census faces significant challenges, but I am confident that Robert’s leadership will help us meet those challenges,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. “He is a respected social scientist who will run the Census Bureau with integrity and independence.”

House Republicans expressed dismay over the selection of Groves, saying he raised serious questions about Obama’s political intentions.

“We will have to watch closely to ensure the 2010 census is conducted without attempting … statistical sleight of hand,” said House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

When he was the bureau’s associate director, Groves was among several officials who recommended the 1990 census be statistically adjusted to make up for an undercount of roughly 5 million people, many of them minorities in dense urban areas who tend to vote for Democrats.

But in a fierce political dispute that prompted White House staff to call advisers to the bureau and express opposition, the Census Bureau was overruled by Republican Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, who called the proposed statistical adjustment “political tampering.”

The Supreme Court later ruled in 1999 that federal law barred the use of statistical sampling to apportion House seats. Justices, however, indicated that adjustments could be made to the population count when redrawing congressional boundaries.

Locke has made clear that sampling will not be used for apportionment. He stated during his confirmation hearing that there are no plans to use sampling for redistricting, while indicating that sampling could be used to measure census accuracy or collect a wider range of demographic data.

Census experts have said it would be difficult at this point to make plans for sampling in the 2010 census for congressional redistricting purposes since the count is only a year away. It is more likely that Groves could have an impact on statistical methods as part of long-term planning for census surveys after 2010.

Groves, a professor at the University of Michigan, would take over at a critical time. Census officials acknowledge that tens of millions of residents in dense urban areas _ about 14 percent of the U.S. population _ are at high risk of being missed because of language problems and a deepening economic crisis that has displaced homeowners.

The government is devoting up to $250 million of the $1 billion in stimulus money for outreach, particularly for traditionally hard-to-count minorities.

But Hispanics, blacks and other groups are warning that traditional census outreach will not be enough, citing in particular rising anti-immigration sentiment after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, praised Groves as a well-regarded academic, calling the question of statistical adjustment in the 2010 census a “non-issue” because there are no plans for it.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who chairs a House subcommittee on the census, said Groves will be a strong and effective manager for the bureau. “I look forward to working closely with him to reduce the undercount of minorities,” said Clay, speaking also on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Republicans have been crying foul after the White House earlier this year indicated that it would take greater control over the census to address minority group concerns about Obama’s initial nomination of GOP Sen. Judd Gregg as Commerce secretary.

Gregg later withdrew his nomination, partly citing disagreements over handling of the census. The White House has since made clear that Locke will make the final decisions regarding the 2010 head count.

Democrats and Republicans for years have disagreed on whether the census should be based on a strict head count or cross-checked against a “statistical adjustment” to include hard-to-track people, particularly minorities, who might have been missed.

Meanwhile, the cost of the 2010 census is estimated to be $15 billion, the most expensive ever, and experts have long said the Census Bureau must do more to reduce a persistent undercount among minorities, as well as to modernize what is basically a paper mailing operation that has been in place for decades.


On the Net:

Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov

Commerce Department: https://www.commerce.gov/

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