Amidst the high-profile fight over the stimulus plan and the embarrassing tumult over the batch of Obama administration appointees with tax cheating problems there hasn’t been much attention paid to the most naked power grab yet attempted by the Obama administration: the effort to wrest oversight of the federal census from professionals in the Commerce Department.
As required by the Constitution, every ten years the federal government undertakes a massive effort to count and gather information about Americans. The information impacts hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions about federal funding and policy. But most importantly, it will be the basis for the redistricting which determines Congressional representation.
The White House has proposed that the director of the Census, a Commerce Department employee, report to the White House. The White House contends this is no big deal. Nevertheless, the move followed a wave of protest from liberal civil rights groups concerned that they might not succeed in maximizing the count of minority voters if the census remained under the auspices of Republican Judd Gregg, the Commerce secretary nominee.
Republican leaders in Congress are waking up to the implications of the White House’s decision and beginning to sound the alarm. Two Republican congressmen have sent a letter to the White House protesting the move. The congressmen cited Title 13 of the U.S. Code, requiring that the Census Bureau be administered “within, and under the jurisdiction of, the Department of Commerce.” They contend that “the Executive Branch is limited to providing support for the Bureau in the form of information and resources.”
On Sunday Republicans fanned out on TV to try to raise public awareness of the issue. Minority Leader John Boehner on Fox News Sunday explained:
It just tells me that the census, the counting of the population of the United States is going to be politicized. This is very simple, Chris, the Constitution says that every ten years there will be a count of all persons who live in the United States. That means that we need to have an actual count. And why this has to be moved from the Commerce Department over to the chief of staff’s office, I would think he’d have better things to do, than to coordinate the census, but apparently they have ideas about what they might want to do to politicize the counting of our population next year.
Sen. John Cornyn echoed a similar sentiment during his exchange with Chris Wallace:
WALLACE: Senator Cornyn, we now learn that the Obama administration is going to have the director of the Census Bureau report not only to the commerce secretary but also to the White House. What’s wrong with that?
CORNYN: Well, ordinarily, this has been something that the commerce secretary has done, and I think it ought to be done on a competent, as much as possible, nonpartisan basis. And to shift it to the White House to me just politicizes the census, which is not something we should be doing.
WALLACE: And what’s the danger, briefly, of politicizing the census?
CORNYN: Well, because, of course, that determines who gets what congressional districts. States like Texas were going to get probably at least three new congressional districts based on the reapportionment — and then, of course, in drawing those lines, redistricting within states. It’s all based on those census figures. So if you cook the figures up front, I think it distorts that process going forward and undermines the concept of one person, one vote.
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?”