Chicago-style Politics At The Census?

February 11th, 2009 at 9:49 pm | 2 Comments |

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Recently, discount the Obama administration revealed that the next Census Bureau Director would report directly to the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. This is a departure from the norm, in which the Census chief would be responsible to the Secretary of Commerce. Republicans were quick to criticize this move as an unnecessary and undesirable politicization of the Census Bureau, since Emanuel was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was considered a significant player in the Democrats 2008 victory. Last week, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) condemned the change as “motivated by politics, rather than the interests of our country”. Echoing this sentiment was Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif), ranking member of the committee that oversees the Census Bureau, who said that he feared the “injection of Chicago-style politics” into the 2010 Census. His Deputy Press Secretary, Curt Bordella, told NewMajority that “nothing is more fundamental to our democratic process than the way that people are counted”, and that this move was a “contradiction to the change and transparency that [Obama] had promised in [his] campaign”.

The reality is that partisanship at the Census Bureau could have profound political consequences. In the 2000 Census, two sets of data were produced: one that is based on a traditional headcount, and one that is based on sampling and statistical approximations. Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats would have an advantage if the sampling methodology was used. This is because the segment of the population that is hardest to count typically consists of minorities living in urban areas. Since these areas tend to be Democratic strongholds, the sampling methodology could lead to more federal money flowing to Democratic districts at the expense of Republican ones. (A 1999 Supreme Court ruling prevents sampling from being used in the apportionment of districts.) Although the current 2010 Census model does not contain sampling, Bordella suggested that this could be altered, contending that “if the political will is there, anything can happen very quickly,” citing the bailout package as an example.

Any shift that would damage the Census Bureau’s current reputation as a trustworthy scientific organization would be worrisome and would undermine public trust in a fundamental process that forms the basis for drawing American political jurisdictions and determining the distribution of federal spending. Former Census Bureau Director Bruce Chapman recently opined on his blog that “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.” Indeed, there is no excuse for any action that threatens the political independence of census-taking. Former Census Bureau directors resoundingly agree: seven of them signed a letter in 2008 that called for the establishment of an independent Census agency.

Concerns over the politicization of the Census Bureau could be mollified if the Obama administration appointed Kenneth Prewitt as the Bureau’s next Director. As the Director of the organization from 1998-2001, he was known for being the force behind the 2000 Census, which was lauded for its accuracy. A New York Times editorial written a month before this controversy erupted endorsed Prewitt as the “obvious choice”. His nomination would be insulated from accusations of politicization, as Prewitt has repeatedly called for the Census Bureau to be made an independent agency. In a recent book, Politics and Science in Census Taking, Prewitt justifies his position on the formation of an independent Census Bureau by recognizing that “both America’s major political parties would…sacrifice census accuracy for partisan advantage.” With the benefit of this knowledge, Prewitt is an excellent candidate for ensuring the political neutrality of the Census Bureau.

In an interview with NewMajority, Prewitt, a former Democratic appointee, said that he was “pleased” with Republican calls for the maintenance of an independent Census Bureau. Further, he downplayed the importance of the Obama administration’s decision, denying that the shift in the lines of authority surrounding the Census Bureau Director constituted politicization. When questioned about how the politicization of the Census Bureau might take place, Prewitt defended the professionalism and integrity of his former colleagues, stressing that any move to politicize the Bureau would be met with a “bureaucratic revolt”.

Over the coming weeks and months, those concerned about the politicization of the Census should look closely at two things. Firstly, attention should be paid to whether the next Census Bureau Director, who has yet to be nominated, favors sampling over enumeration as a method for producing census figures. Secondly, any changes in the Census Bureau budget should be examined for alterations in the way programs are funded. In his interview, Prewitt suggested that one of the ways that the Census could be manipulated for partisan purposes would be through the “power of the purse”. For example, reduced funding for census takers in rural areas could be seen as a way for Democrats to gain a political advantage. Over the coming weeks and months, vigilance will be required from those who wish for a politically independent Census.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • mikedbike

    Excellent explanation of the situation and probable outcome of what has occurred. That said, the argument is over.
    Obama (see also Rahm Emanuel) will do whatever he pleases to consolidate absolute power. This IS Chicago style politics and since the Democratic Congress is the only force capable of stopping Obama, and they benefit from cheating on the census, the issue is done. That is the reality of the political world we live and all the complaining and finger pointing in the world won’t change it. TWBB

  • ErickJD08

    Your points are spot on. With the way the stimulus package was passed and the wasteful package itself, I think that the 5th district in Illinois is ripe for the picking. It could be a good spot to start a Republican fight to balance Congress.

    Republicans are finally starting to realize that the public is dire need of responsible government spending. After visiting Greg Bedell’s campaign website, I think he is right Republican for the job.