The announcement last week that Congressional Black Caucus members plan to press President Obama to keep the 2010 census under White House supervision, even if the former Democratic Governor of Washington, Gary Locke, is confirmed as Commerce Secretary, brought back memories of a movie I’d seen before — a bad movie.
The statement came from Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., the caucus’ leading voice on the census, and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, which has jurisdiction over the decennial count. His assertion that the White House needs “to be hands-on, very much involved in selecting the new census director as well as being actively involved and interested in the full and accurate count,” suggests that the partisan gap about what the census should accomplish is no closer to being closed than it was ten years ago when we last undertook the constitutionally mandated exercise in counting everyone living in America. The gap was so big last time that it helped bring about the complete shutdown of the United States government.
When Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House he decided, in his own paranoid way, that Bill Clinton and the Democrats would use their executive authority to produce a biased census whose over-count of minorities would shift, in his opinion, twenty-four House seats from the Republicans to the Democrats after the 2000 census. Of course, it was ludicrous to think such an outcome would occur, since legislative boundaries are drawn by the party in power in each state. Whatever numbers the census produces in our decennial exercise can be manipulated to produce any outcome each state’s ruling party desires, as Congressman Tom DeLay and his Texas Republican cronies proved a few years ago. Nevertheless, Gingrich was determined to use the Congressional appropriations process to undercut any attempt by the Democrats to overstate minority populations in the several states.
The method by which this nefarious plot was to be carried out, in the Republican party’s opinion, was by the use of a large sample of Americans to be surveyed at the same time as the actual count, or enumeration, required by the Constitution was taking place. In response to concerns about previous census inaccuracies — both overcounts and undercounts — the National Academy of Sciences had recommended that the Census Bureau use survey sampling techniques to validate not just the overall count but the individual demographic sub-groups that the census’s enumeration process would identify. But this was a hugely expensive undertaking. To gain statistical accuracy, about 1.3 million Americans would have to respond to a lengthy survey that would cost about a half a billion dollars to execute. And it was this expenditure that Gingrich refused to appropriate. When he and Clinton came to the ultimate showdown on funding the government Gingrich blinked.
As part of the budget settlement that reopened the government after the shutdown, Clinton forced him to reinstate funding for the sample survey. But despite having established the primacy of the White House in the conduct of the census, matters actually got worse for awhile. When I became Director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) under Vice President Al Gore, I was asked to monitor the implementation of the census to be sure it was done as effectively and as efficiently as possible. But the first idea on how to accomplish that came straight out of the same White House partisan playbook that is now being invoked by the Congressional Black Caucus.
In order to assure that the process was “bi-partisan,” it was suggested that a commission be established made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats who would oversee the activity on behalf of the Congress. Since the commission was to be equally divided, the Clinton White House wanted to make sure that only the most partisan Democrats — those who would never concede an inch to their Republican counterparts on issues such as funding and methodology — were selected. Names like Harold Ickes, Supervisor Gloria Molina, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters were discussed as representative of the type of Democrat who would make sure the use of sampling to confirm the accuracy of the count was preserved. Fortunately, thanks to the eloquence of Rob Shapiro, the Undersecretary for the Department of Commerce who had the actual authority to supervise the Census, cooler heads in the Vice President’s office were able to prevail over their White House counterparts, and the Commission notion was abandoned.
But that didn’t stop the two parties from continuing their warfare over the value of a sample supplemented census vs. a straight enumeration. Republicans sued the Census Bureau in federal court, demanding that only the actual count of residents as provided in the Constitution be used for any apportionment of state's representation in the House of Representatives. The Federal Appeals court dismissed the Republican lawsuit as none of the Court’s business. Foreshadowing the outcome of Gore v. Bush in 2000, the Supreme Court surprisingly took up the case and overturned the Appeals court ruling. As a result, all subsequent apportionment efforts have used only the enumeration count from the 2000 census. On the other hand, formulas used to allocate federal funds based on population characteristics were unaffected by the ruling and could have used the sampling process, had it not met an untimely and unnecessary death.
As soon as George W. Bush was elected and the incredibly professional Director of the Census Bureau, Ken Prewitt, was removed from office, the Commerce Department’s new partisan Secretary, Donald Evans, determined that the sample that had been prepared over the strong objections of Congressional Republicans was not useable. Sampling, as originally conceived, was never implemented, and the country ended up relying on a very strong effort to count households and those living in them for its 2000 census. This method tends to overcount families with two houses, who respond to the census form at both of their addresses, and college students who generally answer the form from their dorm room while their parents report them as still in their household back home. And, of course, it tends to undercount less affluent populations with fewer physical ties to a specific dwelling, particularly Native Americans, and to some degree Hispanics and African Americans.
Despite these problems, a sampling approach could not be used to help correct inaccuracies in this year’s census, even if Rahm Emanuel himself were to oversee it. We are too far along in the process to recreate it. There is, however, a substitute available that should alleviate the concerns of all but the most stubborn partisans on both sides of the issue. Under the Gore reinvention initiative, the Census Bureau conceived of a concept now known as the American Community Survey. It was designed to survey a vast quantity of households over time to acquire the kind of detailed demographic data that was usually obtained from the subset of the population, about one in ten, who were asked to complete the “long form” of the census questionnaire every ten years. Republicans hated this form and the type of questions it asked; they saw it as an unlawful intrusion on the privacy of families by the federal government. Those of us in charge of reinventing the federal government thought the ACS could be a much more scientific and efficient way of collecting this essential data, but our challenge was to keep it from becoming a political football in the partisan warfare over the census.
Finally, it was agreed that the Clinton administration budget proposals would include a continuing increase in funds for the ACS. In order to garner Republican support, ACS would be justified as a way to eliminate the long form by 2010. The budget request was forwarded by the head of ACS directly to the Vice President’s office, which made it a priority each year, but which never publicly acknowledged any interest in the concept. The ruse worked and the project became a reality. The long form will not be used in the upcoming census because the ACS has gathered, over time, sufficient data on the demographic details of America’s population as to make it unnecessary.
Given the existence of the ACS, those now waging a battle over sampling vs. enumeration are truly guilty of fighting today’s war with yesterday’s weapons. In this new era, those who have a legitimate interest in as complete and accurate a census as possible should instead direct their efforts to the neighborhoods where the accuracy of the count will actually be determined. During the last count, the Census Bureau formed hundreds of thousands of partnerships with community groups interested in making sure that everyone they knew got counted. Today, these programs, as well as projects such as former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer’s “Nosy Neighbors” campaign, are the best way to ensure an accurate outcome.
The responsibility for America’s next census does not and should not rest with the White House. But President Obama’s experience does offer some direction: neighborhood organizing is key. Let’s hope that community leaders will follow the advice to ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself off’… and undertake the huge task of ensuring that every person is present and accounted for in America’s next census.
Morley Winograd is co-author, with Michael D. Hais of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, now available in paperback. Both of them are fellows with NDN, a progressive think tank, which is also home to their blog.