Legislation Calls For Independent Census Bureau

Kenneth Prewitt, like other former census directors, says political attention can be a problem for the bureau.
Kenneth Prewitt, like other former census directors, says political attention can be a problem for the bureau. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

House Democrats will unveil a measure today that would separate the U.S. Census Bureau from the Commerce Department and make it an independent government agency similar in design to the National Institutes of Health or NASA.

The proposal comes in the wake of Republican allegations that the Obama administration is attempting to politicize the census by giving White House aides responsibility for overseeing next year's head count.

Administration officials stress that while the White House is expected to take part in advertising and community outreach related to the 2010 Census, the census director will continue to report to the secretary of commerce.

But with so much at stake in the outcome of the decennial head count, some House Democrats argue that the census should be insulated from any hint of political influence.

"After three decades of controversy surrounding the decennial census, the time has come to recognize the Census Bureau as one of our country's premier scientific agencies and it should be accorded the status of peers such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation," Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the bill's lead sponsor, said in a statement.

"This action will be a clear signal to Americans that the agency they depend upon for unbiased monthly economic data as well as the important decennial portrait of our nation is independent, fair, and protected from interference," she added.

The information gathered by the census is used in determining the reallocation of congressional seats among the states and the state-by-state distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds. Next year's count, expected to cost $13.7 billion to $14.5 billion, has drawn considerable interest from minority groups concerned about potential undercounts of urban centers and the growing Hispanic population.

If passed, the bill would not take effect until 2012, after the completion of the next census. It also would grant the presidentially appointed census director a full five-year term. All of the living former census directors support the bill, saying the collection and analysis of census data should be protected from bureaucratic stress and political scrutiny.

Kenneth Prewitt, who served as census director from 1998 to 2001 and is a leading candidate to serve again, wrote in a 2003 memo that bureau staff occasionally felt "under siege" from political attention and that such concerns "occupied management time that might otherwise have focused on the job at hand."

The legislation, first introduced by Maloney in 2007, is also sponsored by Republican Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.), but it faces opposition from others in the GOP, who are concerned that the Census Bureau has not resolved management issues, including its decision to forgo the use of specially developed handheld computers during next year's head count. "Simply turning a troubled agency loose at this time is not the answer," said Frederick Hill, spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The government has conducted a national census every 10 years since 1790, and Congress established a permanent census office in 1902. The office moved to the Department of Commerce upon its establishment in 1903.

Read Ed O'Keefe's Federal Eye blog at www.washingtonpost.com/federaleye.

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