The Census Goes to the White House -- What Are They Thinking?

By Betsy NewmarkHigh School History and Government Teacher

In response to concerns that black and Hispanic groups have about Obama's nominee to head the Department of Commerce, the Obama administration has decided to have the director of the census, normally part of the Commerce Department, report to the White House.

This raises a couple of questions. If Gregg is the optimal candidate to be Secretary of Commerce, why does the Obama administration mistrust him to perform one of his primary responsibilities? Either they think he's a man they can trust or they don't. Gregg has a record of supporting free trade and that is clearly in the purview of the Commerce Secretary. Are they going to circumvent him on trade issues also?

Meanwhile, Jennifer Rubinpoints out that the statutes are very clear on where the authority over the census is located. Somehow, the Obama administration is going to have to find a legal justification for going against what seems pretty well laid out in the actual laws governing the census.

Congress has "directed" in Title 13 that the Census be carried out by the Bureau of the Census "as an agency within, and under the jurisdiction of, the Department of Commerce." 13 U.S.C. 2. The Secretary of Commerce is directed to carry out the duties of this title and while he can delegate "the performance of such functions and duties," he can only do so to "officers and employees of the Department of Commerce." 13 U.S.C. 4. So what Obama is doing by having the Census Bureaus report directly to the White House is not authorized by federal law. Also, only "sworn officers and employees of the Department or bureau" are allowed to examine individual census reports. This is part of the confidentiality requirements of Section 9 of the law. Depending on what kinds of reports and information would be given to the White House, there could also be a violation of this confidentiality requirement.

Interesting. I'd like to see the legal answer from the White House Counsel on circumventing these statutes. It's not just that it is custom for the Commerce Department to run the census, it's actually the law.

And finally, how would the Democrats appreciate the idea of a Republican president, say George W. Bush, putting the control something as political as the census in the White House in violation of the laws governing the census? I think we can imagine the outrage that move would arouse among the Democrats.

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