Americans don’t even start filling out their census forms for another year, but the political wrangling over the decennial population count is already well under way. Just ask Sen. Judd Gregg.
Even before the New Hampshire Republican on Thursday withdrew his nomination to head the Commerce Department, which oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, Republicans were fuming about Obama administration efforts to bypass Mr. Gregg on matters related to the 2010 census.
“How would you feel if this was [President Bush’s senior political adviser] Karl Rove and the Bush White House that was handling this census? It’s the same thing,” an indignant Rep. Gregg Harper, Mississippi Republican, said just hours before Mr. Gregg withdrew.
The White House, meanwhile, said the director of the Census Bureau always has kept the president abreast of the agency’s work and asserted that the same chain of command in existence for decades would remain in place.
“This administration has not proposed removing the census from the Department of Commerce, and the same congressional committees that had oversight during the previous administration will retain that authority,” White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Thursday.
Mr. Gregg divorced himself from the Obama nomination late Thursday, citing “irresolvable conflicts,” chief among them the census. He said President Obama and he are “functioning from a different set of views” and that he could not proceed.
The census, set out in the Constitution, has enormous political impact. Its determination of overall state populations determines how many House seats each state gets, thus the makeup of the Electoral College that elects the president.
In addition, Democrats or Republicans - whichever party is in power in the various state legislatures - use the data to redraw congressional districts at both the federal and state levels to their advantage, often through the deliberate rearrangement of boundaries known as gerrymandering.
Also, the census is used to allocate federal funds, which also means a political party could steer money to districts it controls by shaping the data. An estimated $300 billion in federal funds for roads, schools, hospitals and other programs are distributed annually on the basis of the data.
The hubbub started Feb. 3, when the president nominated Mr. Gregg to head the Commerce Department.
The Republican once voted to abolish the agency, which raised concerns among Democrats, the Congressional Black Caucus and a group representing Hispanic elected officials that he would not use their preferred methods, which the groups claim are needed to avoid undercounting ethnic minorities as in past censuses.
The White House, seeking to ease that concern, released a statement late last week reassuring Democrats and others that the new Census Bureau director, still unnamed, would “work closely with White House senior management.”
Republicans, wary of having a partisan official, such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, oversee the census, have been crying foul ever since.
Mr. Emanuel was, they noted, a former Clinton administration official famous for his partisanship; he more recently ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 election, credited for Republicans losing control of the House and Senate.
“The chief of staff is the hack at the gate of the White House,” Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Thursday. “Rahm Emanuel is in fact a political animal who decides who gets time with the president for political reasons.”
The Obama administration is downplaying how closely the White House would oversee the Census Bureau. The White House on Wednesday said Mr. Obama is committed to a “complete and accurate count through a process that is free from politicization.” But Thursday, Mr. LaBolt added: “As they have in the past, White House senior management will work closely with the census director given the number of decisions that will need to reach the president’s desk.”
Rep. Lamar Smith, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said not so.
“We checked with the Congressional Research Service, and there is no precedent for this, despite what the administration might say,” he asserted.
Minority groups, quietly encouraged by Democrats, led a charge in 2000 to challenge the census, urging that statistical sampling and computer models - not the head-count “actual enumeration” mandated by the Constitution - should be employed. That despite a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that sampling could not be used to apportion congressional seats.
“Adjusting is statistical abstraction or extrapolation that gives a select few the ability to go in after the count is done in the census and adjust the numbers and adjust the numbers in ways they see and deem fit,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican and ranking member on the census subcommittee.
The Republicans went so far as to threaten to file a lawsuit if the White House steps too far into how the 2010 census is conducted and counted. If the president does not relent, “we would seek the court, because ultimately I don’t think there’s any question among the federal court, about whether or not this is a personal power of the presidency, or in fact whether or not executive privilege would be waived if he starts doing functions like this,” Mr. Issa said.
House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner of Ohio also announced that he is creating a census task force composed of Republican lawmakers from the Judiciary, House Administration and Government and Oversight committees to oversee the process.
Even with the Gregg withdrawal, Republicans are still fuming.
“We were promised this spirit of bipartisanship, and apparently it doesn’t exist in many areas and it’s just a pipe dream,” Mr. Harper said. “If I were standing here today and there was a Republican president, and a Republican president tried to make this move, I would be opposing that.”