Count on the Con­sti­tu­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

All of Amer­ica was watch­ing Pres­i­dent Obama on Jan. 20 as he promised to “pre­serve, pro­tect and de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion of the United States.” But few thought that, within a month, con­tro­versy would arise over the Con­sti­tu­tion’s cen­sus clause.

“Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and di­rect taxes shall be ap­por­tioned among the sev­eral states which may be in­cluded within this Union, ac­cord­ing to their re­spec­tive num­bers,” reads Ar­ti­cle I, Sec­tion 2 of the Con­sti­tu­tion. “The ac­tual enu­mer­a­tion shall be made within three Years af­ter the first meet­ing of the Congress of the United States, and within ev­ery sub­se­quent term of 10 years, in such man­ner as they shall by law di­rect.”

This was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary step. Cen­suses had been con­ducted since an­cient times, as read­ers of the Gospels know. But the United States was the first na­tion to con­duct a cen­sus at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. And it was the first na­tion to base leg­isla­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion on pop­u­la­tion. Not many fed­eral agen­cies per­form func­tions specif­i­cally set out in the Con­sti­tu­tion. The Bureau of the Cen­sus does.

To­day, the cen­sus de­ter­mines more than rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It also de­ter­mines the amount of fed­eral fund­ing for a vast ar­ray of pro­grams. As a re­sult, politi­cians have an in­cen­tive to try to max­i­mize the num­bers of their con­stituen­cies. On oc­ca­sion, they have re­jected re­sults they have found dis­taste­ful. Af­ter the 1920 cen­sus showed an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of ur­ban dwellers, Congress re­fused to reap­por­tion seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives among the states.

But un­der prod­ding from Pres­i­dent Her­bert Hoover, a law was passed set­ting a for­mula for au­to­matic reap­por­tion­ment based on the cen­sus num­bers start­ing in 1930 and con­tin­u­ing to this day.

You didn’t hear much about the cen­sus on the cam­paign trail. But con­tro­versy flared when Mr. Obama nom­i­nated Repub­li­can Sen. Judd Gregg to head the Com­merce Depart­ment, which has housed the Cen­sus Bureau since 1903. Al­most im­me­di­ately, there were protests from Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus Chair­woman Bar­bara Lee (who cast the lone vote against mil­i­tary action in Afghanistan in 2001) and His­panic groups. White House Press Sec­re­tary Robert Gibbs de­clared the Cen­sus Bureau would re­port di­rectly to the West Wing of the White House.

Mr. Gregg, per­haps miffed that a ma­jor func­tion of the of­fice for which he had been nom­i­nated would be taken over by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with­drew his name from con­sid­er­a­tion to be sec­re­tary. No new nom­i­nee has been named, but the is­sue re­mains: Will the politi­cians cook the num­bers? The black and His­panic groups are con­cerned that blacks and His­pan­ics will not be fully counted.

This is not a new is­sue. Cen­sus statis­ti­cians have known since the 1970s that there have been un­der­counts of peo­ple in neigh­bor­hoods with high crime rates or large num­bers of il­le­gal im­mi­grants. Cen­sus Bureau pro­fes­sion­als have worked to mea­sure th­ese un­der­counts and to min­i­mize them by us­ing of­fi­cial records and en­list­ing lo­cal vol­un­teers to lo­cate res­i­dents. Their ef­forts have had some suc­cess, as the un­der­count was lower in 2000 than in 1990.

None­the­less, there have been de­mands that the Cen­sus num­bers be ad­justed by sta­tis­ti­cal sam­pling. The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that sam­pling could not be used to ap­por­tion House dis­tricts among the states, but left open whether it could be used for other pur­poses. But af­ter an in­ten­sive three-year study, Cen­sus pro­fes­sion­als in 2003 said they could not guar­an­tee that sam­pling would pro­duce a more ac­cu­rate count than the enu­mer­a­tion de­creed by the Con­sti­tu­tion.

As then-Cen­sus Di­rec­tor Louis Kin­can­non said, “Ad­just­ment based on sam­pling didn’t pro­duce im­proved fig­ures.” Sam­pling might pro­duce a more ac­cu­rate num­ber for large units but not for smaller units — just as the sam­pling er­ror in pub­lic opin­ion polls is small for the to­tal pop­u­la­tion but much larger for small sub­groups. At the block level, sam­pling would re­sult in im­put­ing peo­ple who aren’t ac­tu­ally there.

The po­ten­tial for po­lit­i­cal mis­chief, po­lit­i­cal over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion and greater fed­eral fund­ing for fa­vored groups is ob­vi­ous, just as Congress’ re­fusal to reap­por­tion af­ter the 1920 Cen­sus re­sulted in po­lit­i­cal over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of low-growth ru­ral ar­eas and un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of then-boom­ing big cities.

The bet­ter pro­ce­dure is to trust the pro­fes­sion­als at the Cen­sus Bureau. “I found the Cen­sus per­son­nel to be among the most con­sci­en­tious of any group I’d en­coun­tered in gov­ern­ment ser­vice,” Bruce Chap­man, cen­sus di­rec­tor in the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­cently wrote.

“What­ever their per­sonal po­lit­i­cal views (I sus­pect most voted for Mr. Obama), their al­le­giance is to the in­tegrity of the po­si­tions of pub­lic trust they hold.” This com­ports with my own ob­ser­va­tions of Cen­sus per­son­nel over the years. Like other fed­eral sta­tis­ti­cal agen­cies, the Cen­sus Bureau has a proud cul­ture, de­vel­oped and nur­tured over many years and in many ad­min­is­tra­tions, of in­de­pen­dence from po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion and ded­i­ca­tion to sta­tis­ti­cal rigor.

So it’s dis­may­ing that the Obama White House, in re­sponse to po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, would con­sider over­see­ing the 2010 cen­sus. A bet­ter ap­proach, en­dorsed by seven for­mer Cen­sus direc­tors and em­bod­ied in a bill spon­sored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, New York Demo­crat, would be to set the Cen­sus Bureau apart as an in­de­pen­dent agency. That would pre­serve, pro­tect and de­fend the cen­sus that the Framers of the Con­sti­tu­tion took pains to es­tab­lish.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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