Census Should Be Free From Politics

Rep. Darrell Issa
Politico
2/12/09

The Obama administration’s recent actions regarding the census are outrageous and unprecedented. Commanding the census director to report directly to the White House is a naked political power grab and transparently partisan. There is only one possible reason for it — political interference in the 2010 census and partisan manipulation of the results. This ill-conceived proposal undermines a constitutionally obligated process that speaks to the very heart of our democracy.

While there are unanswered questions about the legality of such a move, there is no question as to the motives. Under this plan, the president would grant his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, the authority to manage the census. Consider that in a 2006 article in USA Today on his thoughts on the 2010 census and subsequent redistricting, Emanuel stated, “If you think redistricting is always partisan and political, which it is … it’s going to be on steroids this time.” Surely, President Obama recognizes the need to leave the census in the hands of those who understand its importance beyond political gerrymandering.

The need for an independent Census Bureau is recognized by Republicans and Democrats alike — and every living former census director is on record supporting an independent Census Bureau. President Obama’s calls for bipartisanship are severely damaged when reports indicate he is maneuvering to stab Republicans in the back through a national gerrymander orchestrated directly by the White House. In short, this power grab completely jeopardizes and undermines the president’s mandate of “post-partisanship.”

The 2010 census is a huge undertaking — the largest peacetime mobilization the country has ever seen — and its results will determine the congressional makeup for the next decade. Both governments and businesses rely on accurate census data to make critical decisions about how to spend resources.

Already, troubling signs of a politicized census are emerging. We were disappointed to see that there are some on the other side of the aisle who are resorting to inflammatory and counterproductive rhetoric. We all share the goal of ensuring that every individual in America, regardless of race or socioeconomic status or any other characteristic, will be counted. Fully, fairly counted.

However, we were greatly encouraged by Census Subcommittee Chairman William Lacy Clay’s statement that his objective is “to count every American.” Partisanship has motivated others in his party to suggest that some form of statistical “adjustment” or extrapolation should be used. This would open the door to the political manipulation of census data. If your objective for the census is accuracy, then you want to count. If your objective is a redistricting advantage, then you want to employ statistical sampling models. Anyone familiar with public opinion polling can tell you that statistical sampling carries a margin of error. And error is the enemy of a full and accurate census.

The manipulation of census data is prohibited by federal law. In a case stemming from the 2000 census, the Supreme Court held that the adjustment of census data violates the 1980 Census Act. If the Obama administration or congressional Democrats were to seek the authority to use statistical sampling for census data, they would undoubtedly encounter a long, bruising and ultimately losing legal battle.

Working with our Democratic counterparts, we will develop a comprehensive strategy that leaves no justification for unconstitutional tactics. A component of that strategy must be to dramatically improve the engagement of local community organizations and church groups. We will offer approaches that increase the frequency and effectiveness of traditional outreach efforts such as phone calls, direct mail and door to door. All ideas brought before the subcommittee will be fully considered. We are confident that together we can formulate a plan that ensures a full and accurate count.

The only thing that threatens this effort is the injection of Chicago-style politics into the census process. Last year, seven former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau, appointed by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush, wrote, “It is vitally important that the American public have confidence that the census results have been produced by an independent, nonpartisan, apolitical and scientific Census Bureau.”

We urge President Obama to heed their advice and keep the census process fair, independent and free from politics.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) is the ranking member of the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the census.