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Census Control Clarified

The director of the 2010 Census will report to the Commerce secretary, a White House official said Tuesday, offering the clearest statement yet about the chain of command on the census and possibly allaying fears among Republicans that it will fall under the political control of the White House.

“The president wants to ensure that the census conducts a fair and accurate count,— White House spokesman Benjamin LaBolt said.

“The census director will report to the Commerce secretary,— he said. “Like in every census under Democratic or Republican administrations there will be interest in Congress and at the White House in this national priority.—

The White House has previously said the census director would remain at Commerce and be subject to oversight by the Commerce secretary, but it had not explicitly clarified that the director would report to the secretary.

In the wake of media reports last month that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — who ran the Democrats’ campaign arm as a House Member — would take control, Republicans viewed subsequent White House statements as inadequate.

Nearly a month after reports first surfaced in February that the White House was planning to take control over the census from the Commerce Department, leading Republicans remained concerned about what role the White House will play and whether the census would be conducted independently.

House Republicans formed an ad hoc panel to watch the White House’s actions. Republicans on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee intend to use the upcoming confirmation hearing of former Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D), Obama’s choice for Commerce secretary, to try to extract promises that the Census Bureau will remain independent of the White House, according to a Senate Republican aide.

Senate Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) has already expressed concern about the White House’s intent on the census and is likely to lob some questions toward Locke.

In an interview before the White House statement, House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the White House could clear up the matter with “one sentence— promising not to interfere.

After Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) was nominated on Feb. 3 to be Commerce secretary, some black and Hispanic leaders told the White House they were concerned about his handling of the census because, they said, he had previously voted to eliminate the Commerce Department and not fund the census. Reports stated that the White House had promised various groups that Gregg wouldn’t run it.

But what exactly the White House actually said is unclear. The White House did not comment on whether officials had ever promised to move the census out of Commerce. But officials with a variety of interested groups denied they had been told of such a move.

National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Executive Director Arturo Vargas said Obama officials never proposed switching the census to the White House.

“I work on the census every day,— said Vargas, who added that as far as he knew it was he and the Congressional Black Caucus who brought to the White House the concerns about Gregg. “They said the census is a priority for the White House, but they never said anything about supervising it or having the census report to them.—

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who serves as the Congressional Black Caucus point man on the census, acknowledged that CBC members had complained about the prospect of Gregg handling the census.

But he said his only knowledge of the White House asserting control came from media reports, and White House officials had never communicated either to him or other CBC officials — at least that he knows of — that they intended to run the census.

Tuesday’s White House assertion that it will take an “interest— in the census has historical precedent.

Kenneth Prewitt, who was census director under President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001 and was responsible for conducting the most recent census, characterized the interaction between the census director and other agencies as a type of “reporting— arrangement, though he suggested a consultative rather than a controlling relationship.

“All census directors in recent history have engaged with (reported’ to) a number of places in the government — Congressional oversight and appropriation committees, OMB, GAO, IG, Dept of Commerce, WH and, in my case, a Census Monitoring Board,— he wrote in an e-mail.

Prewitt derided the firestorm that greeted White House comments on the census. “The political reaction to the [White House] statement on census was as ill-informed and misguided as it was silly,— he wrote in the e-mail.

In a statement written several years ago, Prewitt noted he had consulted with the White House.

“As director, I reported to an undersecretary in the department, who had a small staff dedicated nearly full-time to the census,— he wrote. “The White House also took a close interest in the census, though it was careful not to do anything that could be interpreted as trying to politically influence.—

Prewitt has been reported to be under consideration for the post again under Obama.

Another leading member of the CBC said that with Gregg out, members of the CBC feel the White House does not need not take any special steps to get a greater handle on the census.

“With Locke at Commerce, we feel very comfortable,— Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said.

“I think that once they appoint a census director, everything will be fine,— he said.

Towns confirmed that the CBC raised the issue directly with the White House, saying members were concerned about having someone who had backed eliminating the Commerce Department conducting the census. The House GOP leadership had seized on the issue, sending Obama a letter in February urging him not to put the census under White House control. GOP leaders have continued to warily watch the White House handling of the census.

“If it is conducted by political operatives within the West Wing rather than trained professionals at the Department of Commerce, the entire process will be called into question,— said Antonia Ferrier, press secretary for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

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