Belmont Club

The anatomy of a pushback

Quietly, almost without fanfare, one of the administrations key proposals appears to have been partially stopped by bipartisan effort. The census is no longer going to be run from the White House, at least not directly. The Hill reports:

The Obama administration has scrapped plans to have the Census Bureau director report directly to the White House, assuaging the concerns of lawmakers. Commerce Secretary nominee Gary Locke met with key senators Wednesday to reassure them that the 2010 census would be managed by the Commerce Department, and not the White House.

Locke met with Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to defuse concerns that had arisen over stewardship of the census. Locke provided two key assurances, according to aides: that the census would stay out of the White House’s hands, and that so-called sampling will be used minimally, as an accuracy check.

The article sketches out how the proposal to transfer the census to the White House emerged, and how an opposition to the proposal eventually coalesced. The result was not a total pushback, but a substantial one. The idea to move the census to the White House began with Obama’s nomination of Judd Gregg.

The nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) for Commerce secretary had been under fire from Congressional Black Caucus members, who feared Gregg’s stewardship of the census. The White House subsequently announced that the Census director, who has not yet been appointed, would report to Obama, not Gregg. At the time, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt claimed that there had been “a historic precedent for the director of the Census, who works for the Commerce secretary and the president, to work closely with White House senior management, given the number of decisions that will have to be put before the president.”

Faced with the need to keep the Congressional Black Caucus happy, Obama pulled the census from Commerce and brought it into the White House. At this stage the Census had already become a political football. The battle would be over possession. But now that it was in play, other political interests began grappling for it.

That decision triggered outcry from government watchdog group officials, who claimed that transfer of oversight would inject more politics into the census.

GOP critics also emerged, as Republicans have long opposed the use of sampling in the census, claiming it skews the count of minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called for a House investigation. Many in the GOP feared White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 cycle — would be heavily involved in managing the census.

A Hutchison aide said the Texas senator was most concerned about oversight of the census and welcomed Locke’s comments. Hutchison emphasized that by law, Congress has oversight over the census even though the executive branch conducts it.

The Republicans fought back with an unsuspected tenacity, probably because votes were at stake. That hit the GOP politicians where they lived. Unlike other matters, this was serious. So they fought back.  I can only surmise that Marsha Blackburn’s call for a “House investigation” threatened to put one or more people in the White House under the spotlight. Perhaps the implicit message was: ‘do this and we shine a light in dark places’. That was the stick because some people didn’t like lights shined in corners. The carrot emerged with the withdrawal of Gregg and the nomination of Gary Locke for Commerce Secretary.  That undercut the objections of the Congressional Black Caucus and suddenly, everybody was Jake with the return of the census to Commerce. As the Hill reports:

It appears that now that a Democrat will lead the Commerce Department, concern over the census has dissipated.

That’s proof, if any were needed, that despite denials to the contrary, that the entire Census episode was probably about politics after all. What makes politics different from any other sport is that the players get to change the rules as part of the game they play. It is not the case that politicians work within a fixed framework. They are attempting to modify their environment all the time in order to gain advantage. Although they may swear an oath to defend the laws, the incentives are all on the side of subverting them. The Census provided an opportunity to engage in privilege escalation in which one political party would gain a permanent systematic advantage over the other. In politics, unlike football, you can try to tilt the playing field.

That attempt seems to have failed for now. But in the nature of things the adage that applies is, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”