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Belmont Club

“Like a fire bell in the night”

February 13th, 2009 - 3:44 am

Byron York describes the current battle over who controls the Census Bureau. Counting constituencies is one of the most sensitive undertakings in a political system. For centuries, and not just in the US, the question of how many belong what sides of the political fence has been key to determining legitimacy. In Lebanon’s confessional society, for example, there hasn’t been a census taken since 1932. In US history, the Missouri Compromise created an uneasy balance between free and slave states, but the balance did not survive as everyone knows.  Once a zero-sum game had been set up, it was only a matter of time before a winner-take-all showdown emerged. As the nation expanded, the Compromise began to fail as the balance between slave and free states threatened to tip decisively in one direction or the other. The aged Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1820 to John Holmes Monticello forsaw the weakness in the Compromise, with all the political balance of terror that it implied and knew that it threatened the Union as nothing else.

I thank you, dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. …

I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.

Of course, the US is nothing like Lebanon, nor are the issues today comparable to those faced either by the generations of 1776 or 1820 — yet. But a curious sense of two sides living in an uneasy truce is clearly in the air. Byron York describes the issues in terms of one side seeking permanent ascendancy over the other.

Rep. Darrell Issa is not working from a position of strength. As the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa wants to exercise some, well, oversight when it comes to the Obama administration’s controversial decision to transfer control of the Census Bureau from professionals at the Commerce Department to political aides in the White House. But as a member of the minority party on Capitol Hill, Issa doesn’t have the power to compel the administration to do anything.

So this week Issa wrote President Obama a tough-sounding letter, saying that placing the Census Bureau in the hands of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — the hard-edged political operative who directed the Democrats’ successful 2006 campaign to win the House — is “a shamefully transparent attempt by your administration to politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census.”

From the “other side” of the aisle, the proposed changes are seen as a process of ‘reform’. But here too there is an undertone of politics. The census must be ‘reformed’ because it prevents a nation waiting to be born from realizing its numbers. The census is to be the midwife of a new order, putting an end to the old. Mark Bailwrites:

“President Bill Clinton proposed changing the United States Census in 1998. Instead of relying just on actual head counts, which always undercount people, Clinton proposed using statistical sampling as well. His goal was a more accurate census in the year 2000. The National Academy of Sciences supported the idea. The GOP put the kibosh on it because the people most likely to go uncounted in the census were those least likely to support Republicans.”

Byron York says that some Republicans are deeply suspicious of the move to put the census under Rahm Emmanuel.

You can forget it if you think the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is going to do anything about the census controversy. So what happens now? Obama will do what he wants, with Democratic assent. But Republicans will continue to ask questions. … But if minority Republicans are the only ones asking, the White House won’t have to answer. Which means the census flap might well be an early test for congressional Democrats. Do they believe in accountability and oversight or not?

It’s an issue to watch.


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