Moving the Census to the White House?

There appears to be a bit of controversy over the 2010 census and President Obama’s desire to have the White House handle it instead of the Commerce Department. I’m mostly ignorant of how the census works, so I’m pretty lost in this discussion. So can someone fight my ignorance and answer these questions please?

1.) How is the census conducted traditionally and how would having the White House in charge change things?

2.) What practical difference does it make?

3.) Since a census is mandated by the Constitution, does the president’s plan have any potential conflicts?

This is a potentially hot-button political issue, so please leave out any partisan bickering. I posted this in GQ for a reason. :slight_smile:

The GOP believes that Obama and the Democrats intends to use mathematical estimates, also known as sampling, to establish a count. You can see how one could overestimate. The GOP favors an actual physical count. By moving it to the White House, the Commerce Dept won’t know what’s going on at the Census Bureau. It’s one of the reasons Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew his nomination to be Secretary of Commerce.

My guess? Actual physical counts under-represent poor people, for the same reason that poor people vote in fewer numbers than wealthier Americans - they just don’t have the time to mess around with this thing. Statistical sampling could potentially correct this problem - or, alternatively, over-count poor people and minorities.

The biggest issue is exactly how the count should be done. The Constitution says there shall be “an Enumeration” which has been traditionally understood to be an actual head count, done basically door-to-door everywhere.

In recent years, however, studies have suggested that the actual head count may underrepresent various groups – the poor, racial minorities and others – who are more mobile, hard to find or who actively avoid being counted. Some (mostly liberals) think that we should use computer projections to “fill in” these missing people. Others (mostly conservatives) think we need to stick to a stricter definition of “enumeration.”

It’s important, because the census data affects all kind of things, most importantly how many reps each state gets in congress, and how their districts are drawn. But it also affects federal funding for all sorts of stuff.

The objection to putting it directly under the White House is that it will create (justified or not) the impression that there will be pressure put on the professionals to do the count in ways the WH prefers.

Thanks for the answers, I have just a little bit of a follow-up question now.

You say that this is traditionally understood, but is there any state or federal laws/rules/precedents that explicitly deal with how to count people? And is there anything unconstitutional or unlawful about sampling or using (presumably sound) statistical methods?

What’s wrong with doing an actual head count but using statistical sampling to represent the underrepresented?

If you’re using statistical sampling, you’re not enumerating, you’re estimating.

It is an unusually aggressive move for a brand new president and can only be seen as valid by outside entities only when the methodology, formulas, and their underlying basis is released to everyone. Most statistics for large populations rely on sampling but there is almost always a strong theoretical case for it. The problem is that few details are given here and especially why this would be a priority for any new president at all. There has to be some larger reason to make such a move and yet it is opaque in its urgency.

…Depending, of course, on how you define “enumerating”. But going further down that line is probably getting into the GD material the OP wants to avoid.

EDIT: That was a reply to Captain Amazing, not Shagnasty.

Another complication is that there are some possible Constitutional issues. It may well not be legal for the President to have anything to do with the Census directly, and that may have been deliberate.

Thanks for the explanation everyone. The story makes much more sense now. Now I suppose we wait to see if there are any constitutional challenges and how that pans out. Not exactly ‘fun,’ but… :slight_smile:

This is the first I’ve heard of anything like that. Care to explain?

Another thing to worry about is if Obama massages the numbers to give Democratic states more seats in Congress.

The Constitution actually says

And Congress has directed, in 13 U.S.C. Section 195, which authorizes the Secretary to use the statistical method known as sampling to conduct the census – but prohibits the use of sampling for purposes of apportionment of Representatives in Congress. So sampling can affect the census counts, which are very important to states, as they often determine how much money is given to each state under various Federal programs.

But note that law authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to use sampling; it doesn’t say that he must do so.

That became an issue in 1996, when New York, California, NY city & other big cities sued, claiming that the decision of the Secretary not to use sampling deprived some citizens of their Constitution right to equal representation. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Department of Commerce v. City of New York (No. 94-1614) that the Secretary of Commerce was not required to statistically adjust the 1990 census, despite the Department’s admitted undercount of the overall population and the disproportionate undercount of certain racial and ethnic minority groups. And the Court said that the Secretary’s decision met the requirements of the law, and the Court was not required to intervene.

In 2001, North Carolina & Utah were vying for the last Congressional seat, which went to NC because their census count was 827 people higher. Utah sued over the Secretary of Commerce’s decision to count citizens temporarily overseas (military shipped overseas from NC bases) as legal residents of that state. Utah argued that Mormon missionaries sent overseas from the Temple in Salt Lake City should be counted in Utah. The Court refused to intervene, saying it was within the authority of the Secretary to decide this.

And in a 2002 case, Utah argued against the process of ‘imputation’, where a census worker who finds no one home ‘imputes’ the number of residents of the house, based on how many people he found at similar-sized houses in the same neighborhood. Again, the Court held that the imputation is reasonably consistent with the findings of actual enumeration, and the Secretary of Commerce had the authority to use this process.

So for the last 15 years, the Supreme Court has shown a reluctance to intervene in census decisions made by the Secretary of Commerce. But those decisions can obviously make a big difference in the results. So presumably, the President wants to have a more direct influence on those decisions.

But doesn’t the White House run the Commerce Dept? The Sec’y of Commerce is a Cabinet position.

Who cares which building the paperwork takes place in? Maybe the difference is merely in the (presumably) higher number of security guards who work at the White House, so it is easier to do covert stuff there? I doubt that - Such a basic change to the enumeration would easily become public no matter where it’s done, no?

Nevermind all the high-flown rhetoric about underrepresentation of minorities. Moving the census process to the White House ensures that the numbers can be manipulated to give the left the results they want. This will make lopsided apportionment and gerrymandering easier for them. It’s a power grab, like the so-called Fairness Doctrine they wish to reimplement. I don’t listen to Limbaugh et al, so my personal ox isn’t being gored, but the left control the White House and both houses of Congress, and whine that things aren’t fair. What a lying bunch of greedy hypocrites.

You simply don’t understand the depth of Republican Congressmen’s concern about Presidents doing anything which might even begin to hint of going even slightly beyond their Constitutional powers.
At least since three weeks ago, anyway.

Likewise Democrats being suddenly unconcerned about such issues, hmm?

It falls largely to the opposition to keep the party in power honest, you know.

There’s actually considerable debate about what, if anything Obama is actually doing on this issue.
See information cited here: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/02/the-census-cana.html

Also Gregg appears to not be making a major issue of this:

“Asked about the census issue, Mr. Gregg said the issue was so insignificant that he would not even address it, though he had highlighted the matter in an earlier statement. He had warm words for Mr. Obama, saying he expected to help him move future legislation through the Senate.”

The conspiracy theorists are really getting annoying.

Congressional oversight of the Commerce Department is potentially broader than of the White House. It’s generally easier to pull an agency official in to testify than a WH staffer.