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Santos pledges apolitical role heading Census Bureau

The nominee told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing he will focus on the agency's professional data work: 'I am no politician'

Robert L. Santos, nominee to head the U.S. Census Bureau, is sworn in Thursday during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing.
Robert L. Santos, nominee to head the U.S. Census Bureau, is sworn in Thursday during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Robert Santos, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Census Bureau, pledged to keep the agency free from political interference at his confirmation hearing Thursday.

Santos, a vice president at the Urban Institute and president of the American Statistical Association, said he intends to focus on the professional data work of the agency.

“Although this is a political appointment, I am no politician,” Santos told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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

Democrats in particular have pushed back on Trump administration decisions affecting the agency, such as a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to last year’s questionnaire, adding several political appointees mid-census cycle, and trying to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count.

The ranking member of the committee, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, pushed Santos to commit to the agency’s plan for releasing redistricting data from the 2020 census by Aug. 16. Portman’s state launched a lawsuit over the agency’s monthslong delay in the data release, which is currently in a holding pattern in court.

“There are people who are thinking of running for office, but they don’t know what the district looks like, because we can’t get the data from the Census Bureau, and it’s been a disaster in Ohio. I’m sure other states feel the same,” Portman said.

Santos demurred on committing to the agency’s date, saying he doesn’t have access to the agency’s internal information. Portman said he was disappointed by the answer.

“That’s the least I think that you should be able to do as a nominee for a bureau that has not provided the data needed for us to, as you say, ‘Be sure our democracy can move forward’ by having redistricting data available,” Portman said. “So I’m disappointed you can’t commit to it.” 

The agency missed its original April 1 deadline to release local data used for redistricting because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic as well as decisions by the Trump administration. Originally, the agency planned to release the data as late as Sept. 30 before arriving at the Aug. 16 date amid litigation with Ohio and Alabama.

Separately, Santos pledged to take steps to address morale problems at the Census Bureau and go beyond raises or bonuses to fix root causes of issues there. He also said he would look at expanding language access to the next census and, in the interim, other agency surveys.

Santos himself and other experts had raised concerns about the agency’s translations in the 2020 process — outreach materials was available in several dozen languages, but the actual census form came in only a dozen non-English languages.

Later in the hearing, Santos said he would work with the Office of Management and Budget in pursuit of a new combined race and ethnicity question for the next census. A Census Bureau advisory committee has recommended the agency adopt the combined question, which the agency has tested but then dropped under the Trump administration.

Santos said he would leverage his own personal experience in those discussions. If confirmed, Santos would be the first Latino to lead the agency and the first person of color in a permanent, non-acting role. 

The Census Bureau has been lead by acting Director Ron Jarmin since former Director Steven Dillingham resigned at the end of the Trump administration. Biden nominated Santos to serve out Dillingham’s remaining term, which expires later in the year, as well as a new five-year term that runs through the end of 2026.

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