Census dispute threatens Locke's confirmation hearing

By Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., bureau March 5, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Before being nominated as commerce secretary, the 2010 Census probably wasn't even on former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke's radar screen.

But as Locke begins to make the rounds on Capitol Hill, Republicans outraged over what they see as a White House effort to politicize the census could dominate his upcoming confirmation hearing.

Taken every 10 years since 1790, the census determines how many congressional seats each state will have and how more than $400 billion in federal funding for such things as highway construction, Medicaid and education is divvied up.

Though it may be the ultimate inside game, shrewd politicians keep a careful eye on the census -- who's in charge and the technical details that surround it.

"It's always been political," said Andrew Reamer, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "But what the White House did was a gift for Republicans. They stirred up a hornet's nest that was unnecessary to do."

No one expects, at this point, that the controversy over the census will derail Locke's nomination. Even so, he may find himself in an uncomfortable situation that was not of his own making when he's grilled by Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee.

The latest flap began when President Obama nominated a Republican, New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, as commerce secretary. Black and Latino groups questioned the nomination, saying Gregg, as a subcommittee chairman with control over the Census Bureau budget, sought to shape the 2000 Census in a way that could have resulted in minorities being undercounted.

In an effort to defuse the spreading criticism over Gregg's nomination, a senior Obama White House official said the census director would report directly to the White House.

Republicans were furious.

Under federal law, the Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department, and the secretary of Commerce is in charge of the census.

Gregg ultimately withdrew. But the White House has been on the defensive since.

In a statement Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said the census director will continue to work for the commerce secretary and the president, and coordinate with top White House staff.

"The census director will clearly report to the commerce secretary, but like in every census there will be significant White House interest in this national priority," Brundage said.

Reamer said the issue is certain to come up during Locke's confirmation hearing.

Republicans, including Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, and House Minority Leader John Boehner have made it clear the census will be an issue in Locke's confirmation.

While both congratulated Locke on his nomination, both also focused on the census.

"I look forward to discussing these issues with him, and hearing his views on how to ensure, among other things, the successful completion of a transparent and nonpoliticized census," Hutchison said.

Boehner said Locke needed to promise the census would not be under the control of "political operatives" in the White House.

In addition to determining how many House seats each state will have and federal funding levels, census numbers are used to help determine congressional and legislative district boundaries.

While it is still a guessing game, Washington, Oregon, Florida, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Arizona and Georgia might gain congressional seats as a result of the 2010 Census, while New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio could all lose seats.

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