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Growing political battle over the Census: Latinos versus Republicans

February 9, 2009 |  1:39 pm

The United States takes a Census count of its population every ten years

Every 10 years, the federal government counts the U.S. population.

In a massive undertaking, the Census Bureau fans out across the country and the world to locate, count and gather basic information about Americans. The resulting data is a goldmine to businesses and advertisers. It's a road map for congressional appropriators in divvying up school, road and hospital funds. And it's the basis for how many congressional districts each state will get.

For the last few cycles, Latinos, blacks and other minorities have protested that language barriers and fear of government officials have resulted in an under-counting of their numbers. Since Latino voters voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in November, Latino groups expressed delight when President Obama selected New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Hispanic American, as secretary of the Commerce Department, which handles the Census.

Not so fast.

After Richardson withdrew his name over a pay-for-play scandal investigation, Obama selected New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, a fiscal conservative, to lead the department. Latino groups protested, noting Gregg battled efforts to increase the Census budget the last time a Democrat lived in the White House.

California Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said Gregg's record of voting to abolish the Commerce Department and to block President Clinton's campaign for Census funding in 2000 "raise troubling concerns regarding his commitment to the department’s core missions."

And William Ramos of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials explained the ripple effects that make it so important the Census gets it right this time.

This is also data used for demographers, cartographers, the business community, the nonprofit community and local government entities. It is used to plan where the roads are going, where to put the water mains, the sewer lines, schools and the like.

Appealing to Obama, Latino groups won the president's agreement that the....

...Census director would report directly to the West Wing of the White House.

And that has Republicans taking to the airwaves to protest.

In a letter to the White House, two congressman protested that Title 13 of the U.S. Code requires that the Census Bureau be administered “within, and under the jurisdiction of, the Department of Commerce.” Privately, they grumbled that the move was really a gambit to make sure the so-so-political White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel kept an eye on things. Either way, House Minority Leader John Boehner told Fox News Sunday that the move signals a new politicalization of the counting:

It just tells me that the census, the counting of the population of the United States is going to be politicized.  This is very simple, Chris, the Constitution says that every ten years there will be a count of all persons who live in the United States.  That means that we need to have an actual count.  And why this has to be moved from the Commerce Department over to the chief of staff’s office, I would think he’d have better things to do, than to coordinate the census, but apparently they have ideas about what they might want to do to politicize the counting of our population next year.

And that's not the only controversy -- so far -- with the Census. The Bureau has decided that gay couples will be counted as unmarried, because the Defense Of Marriage Act defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman. So despite the fact that Massachusetts and other states have elected to recognize gay marriages, the Census bureau will not.

As for the Republicans, the text of their letter to the White House is below.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo: Associated Press

Text of letter from Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), protesting White House plans to keep a close watch over the 2010 Census:

Dear Mr. President,

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has direct legislative jurisdiction and oversight over the Census, and as such we are shocked and dismayed at this morning’s press reports of the blatant partisan and political maneuvers your Administration is currently undertaking with regards to the Census Bureau.[1]  Requiring the Census Director to report directly to the White House and circumventing the Secretary of Commerce is both outrageous and unprecedented.

Requiring the Census Director to report directly to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is a shamefully transparent attempt by your Administration to politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census.[2]  The Constitutionally-mandated Decennial Census needs to be fair, accurate and trusted.  By circumventing the Secretary of Commerce’s oversight of the Census Bureau and handing it directly to a political operative such as Mr. Emanuel, you are severely jeopardizing the fairness and accuracy of the 2010 Census.  Mr. Emanuel, who is a former colleague and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman, has a reputation that has been described as “one of hyper-partisanship,”[3] and thus has no business overseeing the activities of the Census Bureau, a division of the Commerce Department that needs to remain free and clear of any and all political considerations.

Moreover, requiring the Census Director to report directly to the White House and placing responsibility for administration of the Bureau outside the Department of Commerce may even violate Federal law.  According to Title 13 of the U.S. Code, the Bureau is to be administered “within, and under the jurisdiction of, the Department of Commerce.”[4]  According to U.S. Code, the Executive Branch is limited to providing support for the Bureau in the form of information and resources.  Under Title 13, the Secretary of the Department of Commerce may interact with the Executive Branch, and the entirety of the federal government “for information pertinent to the work” of the Bureau.[5] 

As you know, the Decennial Census is not only Constitutionally-mandated; the results of it are utilized in the allocation of federal funding and the apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.  As such, the Census process needs to be completely free of political manipulation and interference, in order to produce fair, accurate and trustworthy results.  This will be impossible if you follow through with proposed plans to outrageously and without precedence circumvent the Secretary of Commerce and place direct oversight of the Census Bureau in the hands of the hyper-partisan White House Chief of Staff.  This decision will also jeopardize Census Program funding and trigger unanimous opposition to your next Census Director out of fear that a respectable Federal agency is being politicized.  For these reasons we respectfully request that you not follow through with a course of action that will shamefully politicize the operations of the Census Bureau and jeopardize the fairness and accuracy of the 2010 Census.


[1] “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.”  CQ Today, 2/5/09
[2] “Sources on the Hill close to these negotiations say the Census would, more or less by default, would fall under the jurisdiction of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.” Politico, 2/5/09
[3] The Baltimore Sun, Editorial, 11/12/08
[4] 13 U.S.C. 1 § 2 (“The Bureau is continued as an agency within, and under the jurisdiction of, the Department of Commerce”).
[5] 13 U.S.C. 1 § 6(a) (“The Secretary, whenever he considers it advisable, may call upon any other department, agency, or establishment of the Federal Government, or of the government of the District of Columbia, for information pertinent to the work provided for in this title.”)