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Putting the Census in the White House

- February 10, 2009

Chris Carman sends aong this WSJ op-ed by John Fund, who is concerned that the White House, and not the Commerce Secretary, will oversee the Census. See also the reporting in CQ, the Washington Post, and the LA Times.

As best I can tell, the sequence of events is:

* Some Latino groups (among other groups) think that the Census undercounts Latinos.

* They are thus happy when Bill Richardson is nominated as Secretary of Commerce.

* Richardson withdraws.

* Obama nominates Judd Gregg.

* It turns out that Gregg previously opposed some funding for the Census.

* Some groups object. NALEO is one. The Congressional Black Caucus is another.

* So now the White House will oversee the Census.

Let’s leave whether that’s legal. It is true that the Census Bureau is, by law, part of the Commerce Department (here), but I don’t know that this means the Census itself must be overseen by the Commerce Department. That’s why this isn’t a law blog.

Let’s also leave aside whether statistical sampling is a good idea. John Fund quotes former Census head Louis Kincannon saying that Census research suggests sampling provides no real benefits. I’ll assume Kincannon is right. (Interestingly, some think he was forced out by Republicans because he was not enough opposed to sampling.) That’s why this isn’t a statistics blog, although Andy is free to weigh in.

What are the political ramifications? Here are miscellaneous thoughts:

1) Other things equal, putting things under White House control increases the risk of politicization. Does it increase the risk more than having the Census Bureau report to a Democratically appointed Secretary of Commerce and get its funding from a Democratically controlled Congress? That is an open question.

2) The fear of some is that minority groups will pressure the White House to implement statistical sampling to adjust for possible under-counting in the Census. But there’s no evidence, as yet, that the White House would agree to this. The move of the Census into the White House could have been merely a symbolic move to placate NALEO and others.

3) The head of the Census Bureau is a career civil servant named Thomas Mesenbourg. Here’s his bio. He cannot simply be fired and there is also considerable risk to pressuring him. He could quickly become a whistleblower. This is why it’s hard, in general, for the President to control the bureaucracy (a staple topic of Polisci 101).

4) Let’s assume the “worst” — that interest group pressure leads the White House to implement statistical sampling, despite the objections of Republicans and some career employees at the Census Bureau. Sampling can’t be used in the process of reapportioning congressional seats, said the Supreme Court. But Fund says that it could be used in the process of redrawing congressional district boundaries. And, presumably, in the allocation of federal dollars.

My question is, how much difference could sampling make at the margins? I’m a little skeptical. For example, given the many ways in which parties gerrymander districts, could the presence or absence of a few thousand (more? less?) people here or there be that consequential? The people likely to be undercounted are probably already clustered alongside similar people who were counted — e.g., in majority-minority districts. I have a hard time imagining that sampling would transform congressional districts. Maybe the effects of statistical sampling would be larger for the allocation of federal dollars, although here again, I think we’re talking about marginal effects at best.

Regardless of whether the prospect of a White House-controlled Census heartens you or gives you heartburn, I’m doubtful that it would make much difference. Perhaps someone can convince me otherwise.