Don't Mess With the Census

By Peter RoffSenior Fellow, Institute for Liberty/Former Senior Political Writer, United Press International

The U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section II, prescribes a census be taken to determine the population of the states once every ten years in the manner the U.S. Congress shall "by law" direct. The responsibility for conducting it is lodged in the Census Bureau, a part of the United States Department of Commerce. Until now, that is.

Judd Gregg

White House

As the Census Bureau itself acknowledges, community leaders use the census "for everything from planning schools and building roads to providing recreational opportunities and managing health care services." Indeed, more than a few government programs tie funding and the allocation of other resources to population figures. The census count of the number of people living in the United States is as important to state and local elected officials as it is to federal lawmakers. But, as is true with almost everything else Washington does, politics are involved as well.

There are a number of factors to consider in designing the census. For example, shall people living illegally in the United States be counted? To what extent shall the Census Bureau work to get an actual count of the population? And if statistical sampling is to be employed, as the Clinton administration proposed for the 2000 census, what statistical models shall be used to ensure the accuracy of the count?

These are all very political issues. And it is fair to suggest we can predict with some accuracy which way Obama's White House would rule.

A decision to exclude illegal aliens from the count, as some members of Congress has proposed in the past, would reduce even further the numbers of people identified as living in Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, Miami and other population centers with huge social service budgets. Smaller population figures would reduce the political power of these cities in their states' legislatures. And would affect the numbers the federal government uses in a pre-determined formula to set the size of each state's delegation in Congress.

Obama's 2008 victory shows his support is especially strong in America's population centers, stronger than that realized by most of the Democrats running for president since the 1960s according to some analyses. America's cities are, as mayors and city managers are eager to report, cash-strapped. Higher population numbers coming out of the nation's urban centers would mean more money for cities (and Obama voters) at the expense of the needs of the suburbs and rural America. It would be, in effect, cheating.

This is not to say that cheating would for certain occur if the census' oversight was moved into the West Wing but that action itself would raise suspicions. The Census Bureau, people who follow the issue closely agree, enjoys a solid reputation for doing an honest, good faith effort at accomplishing a very hard job, locating 300 million persons.

These thoughts are echoed by Republican lawyer Mark Braden, who has been involved in these issues for more than a decade. "Counting is non-political, or at least should be," Braden says. "Why should the census report to the White House if it is to be nonpolitical?" The only reason to bring it into White House, Braden and others suggest, is if you want to do something other than make an honest count.

'Putting the census "under the thumb of the White House," said one person who follows the issue closely but asked not to be identified, "is always a bad idea because whoever is in charge, it has the appearance of partisanship no matter what" and, he cautions, that the appearance of partisanship may have a negative affect on response rates, which would throw the accuracy of the count into further dispute.

And an honest count, as heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney would never forget, is just too important to mess with.