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Gregg Withdrawal Ignites Census Rhubarb

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Judd Gregg’s withdrawal as commerce secretary has highlighted the effort by the White House to wrest control of the census (and with it, the groundwork for the 2010 Congressional reapportionment). Gregg took a second or third tier issue and vaulted it to the front pages.

Since word had broken that the White House intended to take oversight of the census out of the Commerce Department and give it to the hyper-partisan political operator Rahm Emanuel, the Republicans had worked feverishly to raise public awareness. They had hit the Sunday talk shows and written letters to the White House. Then early on Thursday top Republicans held a press conference to protest the move. Minority Leader John Boehner explained the GOP’s chagrin:

This unprecedented move would undermine the goal of a fair and accurate Census count.  And it would open the door to massive waste and abuse of taxpayer funds.

The American people expect the Census to be fair, impartial, and free of politics.  And they expect us to protect the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars the government distributes each year based on Census data.  If this process is controlled by political operatives at the White House, instead of experts and statisticians at the Census Bureau, Americans are right to lose confidence in it.

The Republicans met with limited success. During the week, some op-eds appeared and conservative media did pick up on the story.  But given the news of the stimulus bill and the rocky rollout of the bank bailout by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the census story had not reached critical mass. That changed with Gregg’s withdrawal.

Millions of Americans are now hearing about the census power grab by the Obama White HouseBradley Blakeman, writing at Politico, set out the narrative which will now get some visibility:

Turns out that that the President and the Democrats sought to gut the Department of Commerce from the exercise of any authority, starting with taking away from Commerce of the operation of the 2010 Census and giving it to the White House. The Democrats are drunk with power. Senator Gregg got a taste of what was to come from their behavior on the Economic Bill and the Census and said to himself I am sure, “I want no part of this.”


And the Wall Street Journal chimed in as well:

The Obama White House, however, indicated that it might be willing to involve itself more directly in the Census Bureau, with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs claiming “historical precedent” for a closer association. This put Mr. Gregg in an impossible situation. It is bad enough that one of the Senate’s famous straight arrows had his integrity questioned. Equally impossible, the White House’s expressed willingness to bring the Census director under the informal sway of, say, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel effectively undermined the authority Mr. Gregg would have needed to run his department. …

This is a telling moment. The rift over Census methodology is a long-running controversy. It looks as if Mr. Obama, under pressure from the left, has let a second-order issue cause a highly visible and much-applauded Cabinet nomination to collapse. Anyone else thinking of joining President Obama’s “team of rivals” will take note.

This much is clear: control of the census is so critical that it was worth blowing up the Gregg nomination and causing another round of “Obama’s bipartisanship is just talk” carping. What the Obama political operatives might not have banked on, however, was Gregg’s willingness to set out, in a written statement, that the census power grab was a reason for his departure. In a very real sense, Gregg is the quintessential “whistleblower” who is now uniquely qualified to describe, in painful detail, just what the White House is up to.  And, not surprisingly, Gregg began to fuel the fire in an interview on Friday: “When asked if White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was going to try to ‘hijack’ the census for partisan purposes, Gregg said: ‘That’s a good question. We’ll have to see what happens. The way it was explained to me was that it was — the census would still report to the Commerce Secretary, but the White House wanted to have a major interest in the census process also.'” A very good question, indeed.

Up until Gregg’s departure, the White House had been playing a neat game of distraction. As Marc Ambinder explained:

The Census: the White House was trying to calibrate its message, letting Latino groups know that it took their concerns about underreporting seriously without creating a partisan issue. The White House failed in this endeavor. The thread was just too big for the needle.

This is Washington-speak for: They couldn’t carry out a big lie — telling different audiences diametrically opposite things ( “We’ll control the census to count as many Hispanics as we can” vs. “We’re not going to monkey with the census”).

It remains to be seen whether the census power grab will now be derailed.

Republicans are suggesting that they may seek court action. However, that may prove difficult. Members of Congress will have to show they have “standing” to sue (that they are appropriate parties to bring a case) and get past the Obama team’s fog of misdirection that they are simply going to be “coordinating” or “working closely” with the census director. As one former Justice Department lawyer explained:

The biggest decision on the Census in recent years is Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representative, 119 S.Ct. 765 (1999). This was the case filed over the proposed sampling in the 2000 Census.  But Congress had put a provision in the 1998 appropriations act for Commerce that allowed “any person aggrieved by the plan to use statistical sampling in the decennial census to bring a legal action.” So standing was not a big issue in that particular case. This would be much more difficult because you would not be suing over sampling, but about the vague lines of authority over the census. The best plaintiffs would be members of Congress who could try to argue that the White House plan violates federal law.

Certainly the Obama team will receive new scrutiny over the issue. This week’s the Sunday talk shows likely will feature the census flap as another ongoing element in the story of the Obama administration’s bumpy first month. And the Washington Post today cautions that “The Census Bureau is staffed by experts with a well-earned reputation for integrity and political independence.” Translation: the Obama administration should let them do their jobs without political interference.

But the real fireworks may come at the confirmation hearing for whoever is selected as the next commerce secretary. Republicans can be expected now to grill the nominee and seek assurances that the trained professional staff at the Commerce Department, not Rahm Emanuel, will run the census. It will be amusing to watch the Democrats explain that it is perfectly acceptable for White House operatives to meddle in the day-to-day work of our nation’s dedicated civil service employees.

Thanks to Gregg, it will make for the most interesting commerce secretary confirmation hearing — ever.