About the Census, accountability, and oversight

Byron York, now writing for the DC Examiner, has an excellent piece published about the troubling nature of the Obama administration’s decision to essentially seize control of the Census from the Commerce Dept, which is one of the reasons Sen. Gregg gave for withdrawing his nomination:

Rep. Darrell Issa is not working from a position of strength. As the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa wants to exercise some, well, oversight when it comes to the Obama administration’s controversial decision to transfer control of the Census Bureau from professionals at the Commerce Department to political aides in the White House. But as a member of the minority party on Capitol Hill, Issa doesn’t have the power to compel the administration to do anything.

So this week Issa wrote President Obama a tough-sounding letter, saying that placing the Census Bureau in the hands of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — the hard-edged political operative who directed the Democrats’ successful 2006 campaign to win the House — is “a shamefully transparent attempt by your administration to politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census.”
At that point, a powerful member of Congress might have made a demand, or issued a threat. Instead, Issa signed off by saying to Obama, “We respectfully request that you not follow through” on the Census Bureau change.

Good luck with that.

In the last couple of years, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee was a bulldog at the Bush administration’s heels. Then-chairman Henry Waxman conducted investigation after investigation, on topics from the Justice Department to global warming. Waxman was particularly fond of probing the Bush’s administration’s alleged politicization of just about every aspect of the federal government.

Now things are different. With a Democrat in the White House and Democrats running Capitol Hill, that old Waxman toughness is a thing of the past. Waxman himself has decamped for a bigger job chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He’s been replaced as chairman by the lower-key Rep. Edolphus Towns, who doesn’t have the reputation of being a ferocious watchdog.

Some may suggest that this is a small, irrelevant issue in the scheme of things. It is not. As John Fund explained last week:

President Obama said in his inaugural address that he planned to “restore science to its rightful place” in government. That’s a worthy goal. But statisticians at the Commerce Department didn’t think it would mean having the director of next year’s Census report directly to the White House rather than to the Commerce secretary, as is customary. “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.”

The decision was made last week after California Rep. Barbara Lee, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Hispanic groups complained to the White House that Judd Gregg, the Republican senator from New Hampshire slated to head Commerce, couldn’t be trusted to conduct a complete Census. The National Association of Latino Officials said it had “serious questions about his willingness to ensure that the 2010 Census produces the most accurate possible count.”

A nything that threatens the integrity of the Census has profound implications. Not only is it the basis for congressional redistricting, it provides the raw data by which government spending is allocated on everything from roads to schools. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also uses the Census to prepare the economic data that so much of business relies upon. “If the original numbers aren’t as hard as possible, the uses they’re put to get fuzzier and fuzzier,” says Bruce Chapman, who was director of the Census in the 1980s.

Make sure to read both articles in full.

Update: Here’s an interesting side item, from last week:

The Capitol Hill publication Congressional Quarterly yesterday reported that the White House, responding to minority groups’ concerns about Gregg’s commitment to funding the census, has decided to have the director of the Census Bureau report directly to the White House.

No such plans were in place when Richardson was the nominee.

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