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Legacy Content / RULES OF THE GAME

Countdown To Census Disaster

A New Bureau Head Would Help Obama Calm Fears Of Over-Politicization And Put The Office On Track For 2010

March 23, 2009

There's talk that President Obama is finally looking over his short list of candidates to head the Census Bureau. The appointment won't come a moment too soon.

The bureau faces such extreme budget, staff and organizational problems that the Government Accountability Office has dubbed the 2010 census a "high-risk" area vulnerable to failure.

"It's the last five minutes of the game, there are no timeouts left, and there is no permanent coach in place," declared Robert Goldenkoff, director of the GAO's Strategic Issues team, at a March 18 Brookings Institution forum on the 2010 count.


Due in part to problems rolling out new handheld computer technology, he noted, the Census Bureau is behind in field testing and can't answer basic questions such as how it will handle a controversial employee fingerprinting policy -- or how much the 2010 enumeration will actually cost. (Estimates range from $14 billion to $15 billion, a record for the agency.)

"Not having this information this late in the decade is unacceptable," Goldenkoff said at the forum. The Census Bureau will launch its official count less than 13 months from now.

GOP concerns are undoubtedly overblown, particularly given the Obama administration's recent assurances. Still, they point up the dangerous over-politicization of the census.

Add the challenges posed by the economic crisis, and the 2010 census looks like an accident waiting to happen. Americans who have lost their jobs or houses, and who are living with relatives and friends or in cars, trailers and tents, will be harder to enumerate, experts at the Brookings forum said. The nation's growing ethnic and linguistic diversity has Latino advocates ringing alarm bells about an undercount. And past counts have run into problems when there were vacancies at the top, experts note.

All of this argues for Obama to install a Census Bureau chief, and fast.

The president also needs to restore credibility in light of his administration's awkward handling of census-related questions to date.

First, Obama mishandled the flap over his selection of Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to head the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau. In an effort to assuage liberals worried about Gregg's past efforts to cut the bureau's budget, administration officials declared that the White House would take a direct role in overseeing the 2010 census.

This sent up howls of protest on Capitol Hill, as Republicans accused Obama of what Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., decried as a "naked political power grab." It also aroused concerns among good-government organizations. Gregg ultimately bowed out, in part due to disagreements with the White House over the census.

Obama administration officials have since backpedaled with assurances that the census will remain under the authority of the Commerce Department, now to be headed by former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat. The administration has also made clear that controversial statistical sampling methods, which the Supreme Court restricted in its Department of Commerce v. U.S. House ruling in 2000, are off the table.

Statistical sampling "is not in our current plans," census official Frank Vitrano flatly said at the Brookings forum. Vitrano, chief of the bureau's Decennial Management Division, outlined ambitious plans to reach hard-to-count households through multilingual forms, marketing and public education.

Republican allegations of political meddling are "a red herring," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant specializing in census issues, at the same forum. Such complaints undermine public confidence at a time when the real focus should be getting boots on the ground to reach hard-to-count communities, she said. The finger-pointing "has shifted the focus away from the genuine challenges and concerns that confront us," she added.

GOP concerns are undoubtedly overblown, particularly given the Obama administration's recent assurances. Still, they point up the dangerous over-politicization of the census. Mandated by the Constitution, the decennial census impacts the number of seats in Congress, where district lines are drawn, and how much federal funding goes to the states. Questions over whether low-income populations are being undercounted, and whether the Census Bureau will correct undercounts with statistical sampling, have led to multiple lawsuits.

The real solution is to take the Census Bureau out from under the wing of the Commerce Department, where census officials must compete with other programs for funding, staff and attention, and make it an independent agency, argues Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y. Maloney has introduced a bill, the Restoring the Integrity of American Statistics Act, that would make the Census Bureau an independent agency comparable to NASA or the National Archives.

"Political machinations have created challenges for not only this census but for 2000, 1990 and back further," Maloney said in an e-mail to National Journal. "My legislation to create an independent Census agency is clearly the solution to the difficulties of doing a census on a 10-year timeline when we have four-year political cycles."

Obama would do well to throw his weight behind Maloney's bill, which has bipartisan support and is long overdue. In the meantime, he can mitigate some of his administration's recent missteps by finally installing a census chief. Apparent finalist Kenneth Prewitt, a public affairs professor at Columbia University and former Census Bureau director, would be more than qualified to steer the troubled 2010 census back on course. But whomever Obama selects, he can afford to delay no longer.

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