Defeat for Census Reform
Published: December 26, 2010
With an assist from the Obama team, House Republicans and a handful of Democrats have defeated a sound bipartisan measure to reform the Census Bureau.
Times Topic: Census
The bill — which had already passed the Senate unanimously — would have granted the bureau director more autonomy to address longstanding political and bureaucratic problems in the execution of the decennial census and other important bureau surveys. A majority of House members — 200 Democrats and 1 Republican — voted in favor of reform, but the bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass because it was brought up under a fast-track procedure.
The administration’s objections had more to do with turf issues than substance. Gary Locke, the commerce secretary whose department houses the census, objected to one provision that called for the director to report directly to the secretary rather than to a midlevel commerce official, saying that it undercuts a secretary’s prerogative to organize the department.
Reorganization is precisely the point. For decades, the current reporting structure has impeded decision-making and deepened problems at the census. Mr. Locke also objected to a provision that would have allowed the director to share views with Congress that are not necessarily the views of the administration. Mr. Locke’s concerns were especially disruptive because he waited until the night before the vote to put them in a letter to House members.
House Republicans — who wanted an independent Census Bureau last year when they feared that Democrats would try to exert undue political control over the agency — happily cited Mr. Locke’s objections to justify their opposition.
The bill’s supporters included seven former bureau directors from both parties and hundreds of statistical, professional, public policy and civil rights organizations. They understood that the bill would have encouraged consistent, professional management of the bureau — crucial to the scientific integrity of census data and to the quality of the decisions and policies based on the data. The administration and a minority in the House did the cause of good government a disservice.