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Biden’s Census pick to face questions over agency’s next steps

Robert Santos would be the first Latino director of the Census Bureau, if confirmed

Robert Santos, President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Census Bureau, goes before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday.
Robert Santos, President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Census Bureau, goes before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday. (Courtesy Errich Petersen Photography)

The Census Bureau typically doesn’t get mired in politics, and experts will be watching director nominee Robert Santos at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday to see if it stays that way.

Decisions by the Trump administration, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, threw off the agency’s decennial count last year and sparked cries of political interference among Democrats. Now Santos, a career statistician, will have to address those concerns, as well as his vision for the agency as it prepares for the 2030 count.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Gary Peters said he intends to ask Santos how the agency will handle its mission going forward. 

“I look forward to discussing Mr. Santos’ qualifications for the position of director and hearing more about how he would support the Census Bureau’s career experts in their critical work and uphold the bureau’s high standards of accuracy and integrity,” the Michigan Democrat said.

A Democratic committee aide said the panel is committed to providing the agency with Senate-confirmed leadership as soon as possible. The Census Bureau has been led by acting Director Ron Jarmin since former Director Steven Dillingham resigned at the end of the Trump administration.

Santos currently serves as a vice president at the Urban Institute and president of the American Statistical Association.

[Biden’s pick to head Census blends statistical, advocacy work]

Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, said his group intends to send a letter of support for Santos to the committee before the hearing.

“Over the past few years, the Census Bureau’s reputation suffered, and it is important that somebody come in as a new leader with exceptional credentials as a research scientist,” Vargas said.

Vargas noted that Santos would have a key role in shaping the agency’s approach to the nation’s second largest ethnic group: Latinos. If confirmed, Santos would be the first Latino to lead the Census Bureau. That could help the Commerce Department agency get more accurate data on a population it has undercounted in the past, Vargas said. 

If Santos does get confirmed in the next few weeks, he may not have long before the agency releases the next set of census results — detailed local data used for redistricting — next month.

That will begin a critical period in his job — selling the public on the agency’s work, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former House census committee staffer who now consults on census issues. Lowenthal said that sales pitch starts with the confirmation hearing.

“A Senate-confirmed director speaks with authority,” she said. “There will be significant public and editorial commentary about the accuracy of the data, and the director will be the one to address any concerns about the results.”

Over the past two years, experts and politicians have questioned Census Bureau decisions on a new privacy protection method as well as the process of the count, raising concerns the agency would miss people in frequently undercounted groups, including minorities, the homeless and rural populations. Santos himself voiced some of those concerns in past testimony to lawmakers.

The last time a Census Bureau official — Jarmin — testified before the panel, he received considerable criticism from Republicans over the decision to delay release of census data until the fall. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security panel, said the agency provided “nonsensical” excuses for why it could not speed up the process.

Portman’s home state launched one of two legal challenges to the delay, which has since been tossed by a federal appellate court.

Lowenthal said she’ll be watching for Republican questioning of Santos, as well as his answers, to see how they’ll work together.

“It is critical for a Census Bureau director to have a constructive working relationship with Congress, and bipartisan support during the confirmation process can lay the groundwork for a successful relationship going forward,” she said.

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