The Obama administration’s decision to have the White House supervise the 2010 Census -- a response to left-wing complaints that the Census was too important to leave under the authority of Republican Judd Gregg, the nominee for Commerce Secretary -- has thus far (as of Tuesday morning) drawn absolutely no attention from the three broadcast networks, with not a single mention on the ABC, CBS or NBC morning or evening newscasts.
This would undoubtedly be a huge story if the White House were still in Republican hands and it was the GOP that was attempting to take over the Census. As the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund reported today: “‘There's only one reason to have that high level of White House involvement,’ a career professional at the Census Bureau tells me. ‘And it's called politics, not science.’”
Blogging at U.S. News & World Report on Monday, Michael Barone -- who knows more about the nuts and bolts of U.S. politics than practically anybody -- suggested the move could even be ruled unconstitutional:
Here's an argument that it's unconstitutional for the President to take over the Census from the secretary of commerce. It goes like this: Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides for an "actual enumeration" and a statute passed by Congress provides that the duties under this clause are to be performed by the secretary of commerce. Article I (as Joseph Biden didn't know in debate) is about the legislative, not the executive branch. Hence, it is argued, the president can't substitute a sampling for the enumeration required to be done by the secretary.
But at last night’s presidential news conference, there were zero questions about the Census, or about the tax troubles of multiple Obama cabinet nominees -- although a Washington Post reporter did ask the President about the reported steroid use of baseball player Alex Rodriguez. The New York Times has been silent on the White House’s intrusion into the Census process, but did gripe in a Thursday editorial that Obama was somehow jeopardizing the count by putting Gregg in charge:
Mr. Gregg was never a friend of the census. As chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the Commerce Department’s budget, he frequently tried to cut the bureau’s financing. In 1999, he opposed emergency funds for the 2000 census requested by President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled House....In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Gregg must explain what he would do to get the 2010 census back on track. Before that, Mr. Obama must choose a competent director and pledge his administration’s full support to spend whatever is necessary to salvage the count.
In the run-up to the 2000 Census, the Democratic (Clinton) White House tried to push for statistical sampling as a way to create a supposedly more accurate count. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that for the purposes of drawing of congressional district boundaries, the Constitution required an actual enumeration of citizens, not an extrapolation based on statistics. Last week’s move suggests the Obama White House is attempting to re-fight the same battle, perhaps believing (as the New York Times seems to believe) that liberals will benefit politically if the Census moves away from the traditional decennial head count.
In his Tuesday piece, Fund reviews some of the issues raised ten years ago.
Starting in 2000, the Census Bureau conducted three years of studies with the help of many outside statistical experts. According to then Census director Louis Kincannon, the Bureau concluded that "adjustment based on sampling didn't produce improved figures" and could damage Census credibility.
The reason? In theory, statisticians can identify general numbers of people missed in a head count. But it cannot then place those abstract "missing people" into specific neighborhoods, let alone blocks. And anyone could go door to door and find out such people don't exist. There can be other anomalies. "The adjusted numbers told us the head count had overcounted the number of Indians on reservations," Mr. Kincannon told me. "That made no sense."
The problem of counting minorities and the homeless has long been known. Census Bureau statisticians believe that a vigorous hard count, supplemented by adding in the names of actual people missed by head counters but still found in public records, is likely to lead to a far more defensible count than sampling-based adjustment.
The larger debate prompted seven former Census directors -- serving every president from Nixon to George W. Bush -- to sign a letter last year supporting a bill to turn the Census Bureau into an independent agency after the 2010 Census. "It is vitally important that the American public have confidence that the census results have been produced by an independent, non-partisan, apolitical, and scientific Census Bureau," it read.
So will the networks get around to holding the Obama White House accountable to the Constitution and the requirements of a fair, non-political Census next year? I'll bet they'd be all over the story if George W. Bush and Karl Rove were still in the White House.