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  Playing Hardball On the Census

By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 21, 1998; Page C07

With Republicans now mobilized for all-out war against Democratic plans to conduct the census of 2000 in a way likely to reduce the chronic undercount of minorities, immigrants and the poor, the chances of the GOP's winning an uphill battle look much better. At stake are scores of seats in the legislatures and Congress and billions of dollars in government funds.

A year ago, Republicans appeared to have little chance of derailing Clinton administration plans to use statistical sampling techniques to adjust census results for those who don't return mail questionnaires or answer the door when the canvassers knock. The National Academy of Sciences had endorsed it to cut costs and improve the quality of the census, which in 1990 was judged to have missed 8 million people and counted another 4 million twice.

President Clinton was determined to give his party the benefit of the adjustment, and he seemed to have the upper hand. When House Republicans last year added a proviso to a flood emergency relief bill barring statistical sampling for census adjustment, Clinton vetoed the bill -- and the GOP suffered a public relations shellacking.

But last autumn, when he was foraging for Republican votes in a futile attempt to pass "fast-track" trade negotiating authority, Clinton made concessions that have let the GOP back into the game.

He agreed to an accelerated court test of the constitutionality of statistical sampling, and the first hearing, on June 12, was a near disaster for the administration. Two of the three judges on the panel, both Republican appointees, riddled the Justice Department attorney with skeptical questions.

Clinton also agreed to another test of strength on a census funding bill next spring, for which Republicans clearly will be better prepared than they were last time.

The debate involves sophisticated legal and statistical issues. But at bottom, it is about raw political power, as I was reminded on a recent visit to the GOP command post on Capitol Hill.

In preparation for the coming showdown, Republicans reshuffled the leadership of the House census subcommittee and hired as its new staff director Thomas B. Hofeller, a PhD professor and a battle-tested GOP strategist in redistricting fights. Hofeller and his deputy, Thomas Brierton, led me through a detailed blackboard analysis of Census Bureau plans, stressing the risks they see of serious miscalculations with untested techniques and a tight timetable.

But as I was leaving, Hofeller offered a decidedly nonacademic comment. "Someone," he said, "should remind Bill Daley [the secretary of commerce and overseer of the Census Bureau] that if he counts people the way he wants to, his brother [Chicago Mayor Richard Daley] could find himself trying to run a majority-minority city."

This blunt reference to racial-ethnic realities is not uncommon on either side of the fight. Among the thick file of scholarly papers Hofeller gave me to read was an April memo he had prepared, which pretty clearly was not meant for the press. Titled "Why Conservatives Should Be Opposed to Census Sampling," it went, according to subcommittee communications director Liz Podhoretz, to allies in the fight.

It warns, "A census that uses sampling and statistical adjustment will be the biggest victory for big government liberalism since the enactment of the Great Society. These statistical techniques will be used to add millions of 'virtual people' to big city population centers, thus increasing the political power and levels of federal program funding in these jurisdictions."

Then come two pages of answers to "how can this outrage be stopped" in the courts, in Congress and in the grass roots -- a blueprint now being followed by the ubiquitous conservative organizer, Grover Norquist, through a new coalition called Citizens for an Honest Count.

A rival group, including civil rights activists and representatives of city governments, is also mobilizing. The rhetoric is rough. On the steps of the federal courthouse, I was handed a statement from J. Gerald Hebert, counsel of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, crying, "Shame on Newt Gingrich and other Republican extremists who want to pursue another racially exclusionary and inaccurate census in the year 2000."

Inside, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, briefly the Reagan administration nominee for a 1987 vacancy on the Supreme Court, led the three-judge panel hearing Gingrich's challenge to statistical sampling. If the tone of the questioning is any clue, it is Clinton who will have to take an appeal of an adverse decision to the Supreme Court and then face another showdown with Congress next spring.

Hold on to your hats.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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