Published February 09, 2009
Utah's congressional delegation is calling President Obama's decision to move the U.S. census into the White House a purely partisan move and potentially dangerous to congressional redistricting around the country.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told FOX News on Monday that he finds it hard to believe the Obama administration felt the need to place re-evaluation of the inner workings of the census so high on his to-do list, just three weeks into his presidency.
"This is nothing more than a political land grab," Chaffetz said.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the move "shouldn't happen." He and Chaffetz are trying to rally Republicans "before its too late."
"It takes something that is supposedly apolitical like the census, and gives it to a guy who is infamously political," Bishop said of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who would be tasked with overseeing the census at the White House.
The U.S. census -- a counting of the U.S. population -- is conducted every 10 years by the Commerce Department. Its results determine the decennial redrawing of congressional districts
As a matter of impact, the census has tremendous political significance. Political parties are always eager to have a hand in redrawing districts so that they can maximize their own party's clout while minimizing the opposition, often through gerrymandering.
The census also determines the composition of the Electoral College, which chooses the president. If one party were to control the census, it could arguably try to perpetuate its hold on political power.
The results of the census are also enormously important in another way -- the allocation of federal funds. Theoretically, a political party could disproportionately steer federal funding to areas dominated by its own members through a skewing of census numbers.
At this point the White House doesn't seem willing to say what Emanuel's role will be in overseeing the census, and White House officials say census managers will work closely with top-level White House staffers, but will technically remain part of the Commerce Department.
But critics say the White House chief of staff can't be expected to handle the census in a neutral manner. Emanuel ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 election, and he was instrumental in getting Democrats elected into the majority.
"The last thing the census needs is for any hard-bitten partisan (either a Karl Rove or a Rahm Emanuel) to manipulate these critical numbers. Many federal funding formulas depend on them, as well as the whole fabric of federal and state representation. Partisans have a natural impulse to tilt the playing field in their favor, and this has to be resisted," Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told FOX News in an e-mail.
Critics note that the method of counting can skew the census. Democrats have long advocated using mathematical estimates, a practice known as "sampling," to count urban residents and immigrants. Republicans say the Constitution requires a physical head count, which entails going door-to-door.
In 2000, Utah, which has three congressmen, was extremely close to landing a fourth House seat based on U.S. Census numbers, but the nation's most conservative state fell short by a few hundred votes because the Census Bureau wouldn't count Mormon missionaries from Utah serving temporarily overseas.
The GOP took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Utah leaders had hoped the 2010 census would rectify the problem, but now worry that they will lose again if the census is managed by partisans.
When Obama nominated New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to be commerce secretary -- he was later forced to withdraw -- he indicated that Richardson would be in charge of the census.
The decision to move the census into the White House was announced just days after Obama named New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, to be his commerce secretary. Gregg has long opposed "sampling" by the census and has voted against funding increases for the bureau.
Sabato said moving the census "in-house" will likely set up a situation where neither the Commerce Department nor the White House will know exactly what is going on in the Census Bureau. He said the process is "too critical to politics for both parties not to pay close attention."
"I've always remembered what Joseph Stalin said: 'Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.' The same principle applies to the census. Since one or the other party will always be in power at the time of the census, it is vital that the out-of-power party at least be able to observe the process to make sure it isn't being stacked in favor of the party in power. This will be difficult for the GOP since I suspect Democrats will control both houses of Congress for the entire Obama first term," Sabato said.
FOX News' Bill Sammon and Shannon Bream contributed to this report.