White House Power Consolidation Continues with 2010 Census Takeover; Will Press Care?

ObamaAP0109On January 25, as noted by yours truly here at NewsBusters ("Obama 'Shifting Power From Traditional Cabinet Posts"), Jonathan Martin at Politico.com reported that President Obama "is moving to create perhaps the most powerful staff in modern history – a sort of West Wing on steroids that places no less than a half-dozen of his top initiatives into the hands of advisers outside the Cabinet." (The picture on the right is at that report.)

I'm not aware that any Old Media outlet besides Politico itself, which is largely a collection of Old Media alums, has covered this development.

The power grab continues. My bet is that Old Media will also maintain its studied ignorance of this development, despite years of whining about alleged Executive Branch excesses during the Bush administration.

Now it looks like Barack Obama's inner circle is going to teach the Census Bureau how to count in 2010. CQpolitics.com this morning reported that the White House is taking the next decennial census away from the Commerce Department, and keeping it for itself.

The reason given why Commerce is supposedly not up to the job is that nominee Judd Gregg of New Hampshire fought Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s over "emergency funding" for the 2000 census that was really an attempt by the Clinton administration to cook the books.

Here's the meat of what CQpolitics.com reported:

The director of the Census Bureau will report directly to the White House and not the secretary of Commerce, according to a senior White House official.

The decision came after black and Hispanic leaders raised questions about Commerce Secretary nominee Judd Gregg ’s commitment to funding the census.

Gregg, New Hampshire’s senior senator, voted in committee and on the floor for a 1995 Republican budget that envisioned the elimination of the Commerce Department. Of even more concern to black and Hispanic leaders, Gregg battled President Clinton over a request for “emergency” funding for the 2000 census.

The back story that this report did not pick up is this, as taken from an itself heavily-biased June 3, 1998 story at the Los Angeles Times (bolds are mine):

Commenting on a dispute that has become highly partisan, President Clinton on Tuesday argued for the use of statistical sampling techniques for the next U.S. census, promising that the method would avoid the 1990 undercounting of minorities and children.

It’s not about politics. It’s about people,” Clinton declared to applause at a community center in a Latino neighborhood of Houston. “It’s about making sure that every American–literally and really–counts.”

Against a backdrop of one of the most undercounted cities in the nation, he added: “Nobody’s got an ax to grind.”

Actually, the once-a-decade exercise of counting America’s heads has turned into a fiercely partisan matter. The Democratic White House wants to introduce statistical projections into the year 2000 census and not depend solely on counting individuals one by one. Republicans generally have assailed the proposal as a violation of the Constitution, which calls for “actual enumeration,” and a ploy by Democrats to bolster their standing when districts are redrawn after the census.

This just opens the door to tremendous political corruption,” said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who is part of a coalition, Citizens for an Honest Count, that wants the census to stick to traditional methods of counting people.

This excerpt from a 2001 PBS report confirms my memory that the courts threw out stat sampling for the constitutional reason cited above. But of course, book-cooking -- err, stat sampling -- fans weren't done (bolds are mine; paragraph breaks added by me for readability):

In 1999, the Supreme Court had settled one part of the issue, ruling that sampling adjusted figures could not be used to apportion seats in Congress. But it left the door open for other uses, like redrawing congressional districts within a state and allocating federal funds.

Late last year, then President Clinton ordered that the Census Bureau director, a nonpartisan civil servant, should decide whether to adjust the 2000 census figures through sampling. But the Bush administration reversed that order, saying the census... census director's boss, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. Today the Census Bureau in a written statement, they recommended to Evans that he not use sampling to adjust the Bureau's official figures for the purpose of redistricting.

In a memo to Evans, acting Census Director William Barons, said the Bureau "was unable, based on the data and other information currently available, to conclude that the adjusted data are more accurate for use in redistricting."

It's hard to predict without a lot of legal research, but Team Obama may argue that its usurpation of the census-taking function makes it an area of executive branch decision-making that is outside the purview of court review. There may be other, more "creative" arguments in the works. At a minimum, it would appear that the White House will attempt to stretch the use of stat sampling into as many areas as it possibly can.

There is an honest way to do this: Amend the Constitution to allow it. That would force a debate on the appropriate uses of stat sampling; but of course that's way too much work for those who simply want to grab power and see if anyone dares to do anything about it.

There's nothing inherently wrong with stat sampling in certain applications as long as those engaging in it use it validly and under strict controls. But short of a constitutional amendment, any move beyond "enumeration" for any purpose, despite what the courts said a decade ago, looks obviously unconstitutional to me.

Which brings us to a variation of an old accounting joke -- When asked by his boss how much 2+2 is, the accountant replies with his own question: "What do you want it to be?"

With the next Census, the question will be "How many people were there in the US in 2010?" It appears that the answer will also be another question, and a very long one, "Do you want the enumerated count, or the apportionment count, or the welfare count, or the Food Stamps count, or the .....?"

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.