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Have They No Shame? A Power Grab at the Census

Mainstream news reporters also are beginning to discuss the implications of this move. Rick Klein wrote on The Note:

GOP lawmakers are pointing out that the new structure will effectively leave White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- in a decision-making position regarding how Census business is conducted.

"The Census is supposed to be not only outside of politics, but transparent," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "This implies that President Obama intends on getting a count to his liking. It borders on overt political corruption."

While the program to count and compile data on Americans might not seems political, the reapportionment of House seats based on the decennial census has huge political ramifications. In addition,  the census data will be used to determine funding formulas for a wide range of government programs.

It is ironic that the Obama team selected Republican Judd Gregg to head the Commerce Department as an intended symbol of the Obama administration's commitment to New Politics. This was supposedly evidence of a less cravenly political style of governing than what many contended was par for the course in the Bush years. Now, it appears the Obama team intends to strip Gregg of real authority over this key responsibility, giving lie to the notion that the Obama administration believes in post-partisanship.

Had this stunt been attempted during the Bush years one certainly would have heard a hue and cry from good government groups, the media, and academics. We no doubt would have heard a chorus of opposition: "The professional public servants are being shunted aside!" And from those so aghast about attempts to suppress or manipulate voting, we would have expected the shrieks: "This is an attempt to politicize the census and stack the deck for reapportionment!" It is not hard to imagine the reaction if the Bush White House had suggested that a supposedly unbiased statistical undertaking should be directed by, say, Karl Rove.

It is unclear what, if any, recourse Republicans might have. If public pressure can be generated, the White House might retreat. (The White House already seems to be scrambling, trying to belatedly clarify that the Census Director will merely be working "closely" with the White House.) But it is far from certain that the public will see through the White House spin and rise up over something as arcane as control over the census.

Alternatively, Senate Republicans might seek to hold up Gregg's confirmation until assurances are provided that the census will be not be controlled by political operatives in the White House. Combining disgruntled Republicans with liberal Democrats (who might be loathe to put a conservative Republican in the Obama cabinet) might raise the potential for a filibuster.  Nevertheless, Republicans haven't been successful in mounting serious challenges to nominees so far.

Concerned congressmen might seek to mount a legal challenge. However, the knotty issue of who possess legal "standing" to sue and other legal defenses may dissuade courts from weighing in. (Sources on Capitol Hill report that Republican counsel are mulling over the legal issue.)

It therefore remains to be seen whether the White House can be forced to give up the idea of seizing control of the census and instead to guarantee that it will remain free from political interference. If not, and this issue continues to fester, it will likely shed further doubt on Obama's claim to be the harbinger of a new era in Washington. In the end, the White House is unlikely to retreat unless overcome by the fear that President Obama's image -- which has taken a beating in the first few weeks of his presidency -- might be unduly imperiled.  So, for now, Republicans are left to ask, "Have they no shame?"