Is Obama Politicizing the Census?

ABC News’ Rick Klein Reports: The Obama administration is moving to exert more direct White House control over the Census Bureau, in time for the once-a-decade national headcount that determines states’ representation in Congress.

Under the new management structure, the director of the Census Bureau will report to “White House senior management” as well as to the Commerce secretary, where President Obama wants to install a Republican -- Sen. Judd Gregg -- who in the past has clashed with Democrats on issues related to the Census.

The Obama White House says the decision is based on the model used by the Clinton administration, and reflects the fact that the president will have to make so many decisions associated with the massive undertaking that is the federal Census.

But Republicans are protesting the move, calling it a political power grab from a White House that’s promised to defer to professionals in agencies instead of political appointees.

“This action appears to be motivated by politics, rather than the interests of our country, and the burden will be on the new administration to prove otherwise during Senator Gregg’s confirmation hearings,” House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement Friday.

GOP lawmakers are pointing out that the new structure will effectively leave White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- in a decision-making position regarding how Census business is conducted.

“The Census is supposed to be not only outside of politics, but transparent,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “This implies that President Obama intends on getting a count to his liking. It borders on overt political corruption.”

While the issue of counting people hardly seems political, the reapportionment of House seats based on the decennial Census has huge political ramifications. In addition, Census data are used to determine funding formulas for a wide range of government programs.

The run-up to the 2000 Census featured a pitched battle over whether to rely on the actual count of individuals, or statistical modeling that could produce more accurate results.

Democrats tended to favor the latter mechanism, since hard-to-reach people -- particularly minorities and recent immigrants -- are more likely to live in Democratic areas of the country. (The bureau eventually decided that only the actual count would be used in 2000.)

Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt downplayed the impact of the structural changes. He said President Bill Clinton had a similar flowchart in place, and pointed out that the director of the Census Bureau will still report to the Commerce Secretary.

“From the first days of the transition the Census has been a priority for the President, and a process he wanted to reevaluate,” LaBolt said. “There is historic precedent for the director of the Census, who works for the Commerce Secretary and the President, to work closely with White House senior management -- given the number of decisions that will have to be put before the President. We plan to return to that model in this administration.”

But Republicans note that news of the new structure only came out after Obama announced his attention to nominate a Republican for the Commerce post. In the run-up to previous census counts, Gregg has opposed additional funding for the agency, and some organizations have questioned whether he would inject GOP priorities into the Census as Commerce Secretary.

“This clearly puts politics first,” Issa said.

UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about this topic at Friday’s briefing. His response:

“I think the historical precedent of this is there’s a director of the Census that works for the Secretary of Commerce [and] the president, and also works closely with the White House to ensure a timely and accurate count. And that’s what we have in this instance.”

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