Why Census Was Sticking Point For Gregg

When Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) withdrew himself from consideration for Commerce secretary, he cited "irresolvable conflicts" with the Obama administration, including over the Census Bureau. Jonathan Allen of Congressional Quarterly provides an explanation on why the Census is controversial.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, the politics of people who really count. When Senator Judd Gregg withdrew from consideration as Commerce secretary, he cited two areas of policy disagreement with President Obama. One is the stuff of banner headlines these days, the stimulus package. The other is the stuff of inside Washington stories that you read about on page A15 of your local paper, the census. The Census Bureau is part of the Department of Commerce.

Joining us now is reporter Jonathan Allen of Congressional Quarterly. And Jonathan Allen, what was so controversial about the census?

Mr. JONATHAN ALLEN (Reporter, Congressional Quarterly): Well, in general, the Census Bureau is responsible, as you know, every 10 years under the Constitution, for counting people. And that becomes a tremendously political process because the apportionment of congressional district is based on their population count.

In addition to that data that's collected by the Census Bureau, not just population data, but poverty data, income data, etc., factors into federal funding formulas for all sorts of federal programs. Senator Gregg in the past had opposed some funding requests that President Clinton had made for the 2000 census.

In particular, black and Latino leaders were unhappy with that and the prospect of Judd Gregg running the census in the 2010 version, because minority communities feel like they are chronically and historically undercounted, and that that undercount affects their representation in Congress, but also affects their ability to get federal funds under various formula grants.

SIEGEL: And I gather it's an article of faith with, say, the Congressional Black Caucus, that more money for the census means a better count, less undercounting. And less money would mean a less accurate count, and continued undercounting of blacks and other minorities in the country.

Mr. ALLEN: I think the fear, in particular, with the 2000 census was that that was going to be the case back then. And at the time, Judd Gregg, who oversaw the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau as the appropriations sub-committee chairman in charge of those things, had fought for the lower funding level. I think, generally speaking, you can make that argument, that more funding might yield a more accurate count and less funding a less accurate count.

But it isn't just about funding, it's sort of about philosophy and how you do the counting, what the process is.

SIEGEL: So, Senator Judd Gregg and President Obama at some point agreed that this partnership could work - his role as Commerce secretary, although he's a fiscally conservative Republican. After the objections to Gregg about the Census Bureau were raised, they reached a sort of a deal, I gather, that he wouldn't have full authority over the Census Bureau.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, a senior White House official told me last week that the Census Bureau's director would report directly to the White House and not through the Commerce secretary. And then the White House later clarified to say that the census director would work closely with senior White House management.

Of course, Republicans saw this as a serious political threat. They believed that the very politically delicate process of the census, which affects the political map later on, would be routed through the political offices at the White House, or even the policy offices at the White House that are inhabited by folks who have a political philosophy.

SIEGEL: Do we know if Senator Gregg was willing to live with only partial, or somehow less than full, authority over the Census Bureau?

Mr. ALLEN: It's not clear. He said the census issue was a catalyst but not the major issue. I think what Senator Gregg probably saw was an inability to - and this is really what he said - an inability to be himself in that job. And I think that's both because he's sort of independent-minded and, also, because he's a conservative Republican.

And so, the choice would be to either do what President Obama wanted and to just be quiet about it and sell the president's line, or to risk losing authority over the very important component parts of the Commerce Department. As it appeared, he was losing power over the Census Bureau.

SIEGEL: Reporter Jonathan Allen of Congressional Quarterly. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you.

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