Head counts and head cases



My Sunday print column, revised and expanded:

After two successive electoral thrashings, after being told by the voters in 2006 and 2008 that they were unfit to govern, the minority Republicans have few potent weapons left in their arsenal. Whipping up hysteria is one of them.

Right now, for instance, they’re going bonkers over the U.S. Census, which is soon slated to begin its decennial mission of counting every American. The census might not strike you as being a particularly sexy issue, but inside the Washington hothouse, the census always bestirs the partisan juices. Despite Barack Obama’s inaugural plea that politicians should put aside "childish things," there remains an overpowering urge to rant in the sandbox.

But before we critique the latest bestirrings, let us first stipulate that, of course, things could be a lot worse. Back in 1936, on the flip side of the world, Joseph Stalin announced plans for an ambitious Soviet Union census. He predicted that his head-counters would tally 170 million citizens. The problem was, he had forgotten about the millions he had killed in his purges, plus the millions of peasants who had recently died in famines. His head-counters wound up tallying only 162 million. Stalin had a simple response. He shot some of his head-counters, and sent the rest to the gulags.

American political leaders merely do battle with words; the head count typically brings out the head cases. The ’09 census flap began earlier this month, when the president, still pursuing his post-partisan dream, agreed to tap Republican Senator Judd Gregg for the job of Commerce secretary. Big mistake, bad symbolism. Whoever heads Commerce also oversees the Census Bureau, and the liberal minority groups – recalling that Gregg once tried to cut the census budget, and suspecting that Gregg might prefer to undercount minorities – strongly protested his ascendence.

Those protests prompted the White House to mollify the minority groups, promising them that Gregg’s census director would "work closely with White House senior management." And that’s the line that has sent the Republicans, and their messengers, into fits of apoplexy. Gregg has since withdrawn his name, but the emotions persist. On Fox News, Sean Hannity has been inveighing against "the biggest White House power grab ever," which is quite the priceless remark, given the recent Bush-Cheney "unitary executive" assaults on the U.S. Constitution.

GOP headquarters insists that Obama’s "Chicago-style" "hijacking" of the census is "unprecedented," and that outraged donors should send money to fight it.  A prominent religious-right group, the Family Research Council, insists that even "the liberal San Francisco Chronicle" is outraged. It quotes the paper as warning that Obama may well "destroy the integrity of one of the U.S. government's most trusted institutions" – although, as I discovered during my fact-checking, the group actually plucked that line from a letter to the editor.

Hyperbole aside, it’s not surprising that the census is a flash point. Numbers are power. The population count determines who will most benefit from billions in federal aid, and where it will go; it determines which states will gain congressional seats and which states will lose. Both parties have a huge stake in the census. In the broadest terms, Democrats figure to gain clout if minorities and immigrants are overcounted; Republicans gain if these folks are undercounted.

John Boehner, the GOP House leader, intones that the census "should remain independent of politics," but the reality is that the census has been hotly political since the dawn of the republic – a scholar once said that "trying to rid the census of politics is like trying to rid horse racing of competition" – and, current GOP rhetoric notwithstanding, presidents have always shown an abiding interest.

The very first presidential veto, exercised by George Washington, was about the very first census. He and a close White House advisor, fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, decided that the census-related formula for congressional seats was too favorable to the northern states, so they nixed the formula. By today’s rhetorical standards, that veto was a Virginia-style "power grab." And it was surely a "power grab" in 1970, when Republican Richard Nixon – who, at the time, was making a play for future Hispanic votes – ordered the Census Bureau at the eleventh hour to add a new survey question about Hispanics.

Will Obama and his team show an interest in the 2010 census? Absolutely. Will they indeed appoint their own census director to fill the currently vacant job? That’s how it works. But will that director become a White House lackey, skewing the numbers as part of an Obama conspiracy to craft a permanent majority? Only in the GOP’s most fevered dreams. The census will stay within Commerce, and the same congressional oversight committees will oversee as always.

(The GOP, during this marginalized phase of its existence, seems overly focused on fighting phantoms. Aside from the purported census "power grab," we have the purported Obama assault on conservative talk radio. The other day, an Obama spokesman specifically stated that Obama opposes any such assault. Religious-right leader Gary Bauer insisted in response that he didn’t believe the statement, that it was simply a trick.)

Anyway, on the census front, the Obama team is reportedly considering Kenneth Prewitt to run the Bureau again. Prewitt ran the 2000 census, and garnered bipartisan praise for his work. One key Republican said of Prewitt, "I thought he did an excellent job." That Republican was Judd Gregg.

Prewitt also authored a 50-page treatise on the census process, in the aftermath of his 2000 stint. He put to rest the paranoid notion that any single institution, such as the White House, can successfully stage a partisan takeover of the census; there are too many watchdogs on the prowl, at the Government Accountability Office, on Capitol Hill, and in the Commerce department’s inspector general office. Prewitt also wrote that "neither the culture nor the competencies of the Census Bureau are suited to advancing a partisan agenda. The professional statistical community inside and outside the government is the bureau's peer community, and the bureau would not jeopardize its high standing among its peers for a short-term political purpose."

(Actually, the faux issue of a White House "power grab" would probably go away forever if the Census Bureau was set up as an independent agency. A New York Democratic congresswoman is currently sponsoring such a bill, and seven former census directors have endorsed it.)

Granted, Democrats in the past have certainly sought ways to maximize the minority count. Ten years ago, mindful that the 1990 census had missed eight million people, most of whom were underprivileged, Democrats suggested combining the results of the traditional head count with statistical samplings (a process similar to public opinon polls), in order to hike the tally of those minorities and immigrants who had ignored or eluded census inquiries. But Republicans had a very credible response – the Constitution requires "actual enumeration" – and the Supreme Court nixed the idea anyway.

That ’99 court ruling was a big political win for the Republicans (business columnist Robert J. Samuelson once observed that "Democrats' passion for sampling is no less political than the Republicans' aversion to it"), but clearly there’s something about the census that drives the GOP batty. Back in 2000, top Republican senators shrieked that certain questions on the census form constituted a government invasion of privacy; for instance, they ridiculed the inquiry about whether Americans had "complete plumbing facilities," including “a flush toilet." It turned out that the question had been asked in every census since 1940.

And once George W. Bush took over...well, it won’t shock you to learn that, for the past eight years, the Census Bureau has been a mess, just one more victim of the departed president’s penchant for institutional wreckage. Each of the top three bureau jobs turned over three times; none of those officials had any national census-taking experience; and the necessary preparations for the 2010 census were (and remain) chronically under-financed.

No wonder Obama has an abiding interest in the census; it’s yet another fine mess that he is compelled to clean up. The rants on the right are the least of his problems.

-- With research assistance from UPenn student political writer Emily Schultheis.