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No, Previous Presidents Never Tried this Stunt

Bruce Chapman, a former Census Director, calls foul on the White House claim that other census directors have reported to the political operatives in the White House:

[T]he White House and its Congressional allies are wrong in asserting that the Census in the past has reported directly to the president through his staff. Directors of the Bureau often brief presidents and their staffs, but, as a former director (under President Reagan), I don’t know of any cases where the conduct of the Bureau was directly under White House supervision. That includes Clinton in 2000, Bush 41 in 1990 and Carter in 1980.

The clash between Obama’s platitudes and his brazen attempt to control the system that counts the citizenry could not be more stark. Chapman explains that the issue boils down to whether professionals or pols will control the Census:

If it is the pols, you may well get an order to adjust the Census count with samples and modeling. That will take a presidential order to over-ride the scientific consensus of statisticians at the Bureau and elsewhere.

You would think that an Administration that is thumping its chest about respecting science and scientists on such matters as climate change and embryonic stem cell research would show a little respect for the scientists in the statistical field (a branch of the science of mathematics) and their careful work on this topic.

But even if the new politicos in the West Wing don’t really care about the science involved, you’d think they would have a better sense of the political dangers–for themselves, if not for the country. The Census is one of our oldest, most treasured civic institutions and one of the few functions of government named in the Constitution. As in matters of officials’ ethics (as we keep hearing), one not only needs to avoid the reality of impropriety, but also the appearance of impropriety. To be fair and accurate, the process has to be transparently fair and accurate.

This seems like an ideal line of questioning for senators at the confirmation hearing of Commerce Secretary Judd Gregg (in whose department the Census is supposed to be managed). If the Obama administration wants bipartisan brownie points for including a Republican in the cabinet, the least they should do would be to promulgate rules prohibiting the perpetual campaigners in the White House from politicizing the Census. You might even get Sens. Snowe, Collins, and Specter to go along with that proposition.


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