THE CENSUS BUREAU dodged two more bullets this week in that rather remarkable battle of the numbers. Reversing the position it took before the election, the House rejected a proposal that might have required a completely new census. And Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan ruled that the bureau does not have to choose this weekend between giving a city in New Jersey material it regards as confidential or sending its director, Vincent P. Barabba, off to jail.
Those are only single-shot affairs. The Census Bureau is still under a judicial order not to comply with the law that says it must provide the numbers of congressional reapportionment by Dec. 31. It is still appealing a court decision that it must adjust those numbers to make up for the undercounting of blacks and Hispanics. And it is still fighting, in New York and New Jersey, efforts by local governments to get access to census data in order to demonstrate the dimension of the undercount.
Meanwhile, the state governments are getting jumpy. Virginia's attorney general asked the courts this week not to forget that his state can't re-district its legislature before the 1981 election, unless it has final figures soon. A couple of other states face the same problem, while a half-dozen more, in which legislatures do not normally meet in even-numbered years, had also planned to do the job in 1981.
As if that weren't enough, the Census Bureau has said that its preliminary figures indicate that the projections of how many people live in the country are off by 3.5 million to 4 million. Most of those additional people, it seems, live in the South and Southwest, and that means as many as 17 seats in Congress may be shifted in that direction when the census is finally completed.
That shift, of course, is the heart of all the Census Bureau's legal problems. Knowing what they are going to lose representation and federal dollars, cities in the North and East are yelling "undercount," demanding adjustments and claiming they can prove their cases only if they can see the previously confidential census work sheets. Similarly, many members of the House think a large part of that shift is the result of the counting of illegal aliens, and they tried, unsuccessfully, to convince their colleagues to order the Census Bureau to exclude those illegals from its totals, something the bureau is unable to do.
The best solution to this mess would be for the next Congress, like the present one, to keep its hands off the question of illegal aliens and for the Supreme Court to hear and settle the other questions about the census as quickly as possible. If the lawyers and justices move quickly, that might be done by next summer or, at the latest, early next fall. While that would leave a few states, like Virginia, with peculiar problems in 1981, it would permit a complete reapportionment before the 1982 elections. If the litigation isn't expedited, the mess may drag on so long that any reapportionment under the 1980 figures will be outdated before it occurs.