WASHINGTON (CNN)– President Barack Obama’s decision to cross party lines and nominate New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg to run the Commerce Department has set off a partisan battle over the 2010 census.
African-American and Latino leaders are concerned that the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department, might lack sufficient resources under Gregg’s leadership to accurately count ethnic minorities.
And in response to statements from the White House that it will work closely with the bureau’s next director, some House Republicans are suggesting that the Obama administration could manipulate the 2010 tally to achieve a longer-term political advantage for Democrats because congressional redistricting depends on census results.
The Census has been the topic of political debate in the past. Many experts believed that the door-to-door approach used in the 1990 Census count missed 1 to 2 percent of the total U.S. population, with many of those uncounted Americans thought to be minorities who lived in urban areas. To address that concern, Census officials proposed using some basic statistical techniques to fill in the gaps. Democrats tended to favor this approach, which were expected to increase the population count in areas of Democratic strength; Republicans tended to oppose the new techniques for similar reasons. The controversy even reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1990s.
Gregg, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and of the subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department, cast a vote in 1995 to abolish the entire department, and in 1999 opposed emergency funding for the 2000 census.
Almost immediately after Gregg’s formal nomination earlier this week, Hispanic and African-American advocacy groups began to express concern about Gregg’s leadership of Commerce during the 2010 census.
Gregg’s record raises “troubling concerns regarding his commitment to the department’s core missions,” California Democrat Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement Tuesday.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials was likewise concerned. “Census data are the fundamental building blocks for reapportionment and redistricting, which determine the contours of our representative democracy,” the Latino group said in a statement earlier this week.
The group also said it “will be closely monitoring the confirmation process to learn more about Secretary-Designate Gregg’s view of the Department’s responsibility to conduct an accurate census.”
Efforts by the White House to reassure minority advocacy groups have generated claims of partisanship from Republicans. After the Obama administration said Thursday that the director of the Census Bureau would “work closely with White House senior management,” California Rep. Darrell Issa and North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, two Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote the President a letter.
“Requiring the Census Director to report directly to the White House and circumventing the Secretary of Commerce is both outrageous and unprecedented,” the two Republicans wrote. Issa and McHenry also described Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as a “hyper-partisan” who might “politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census” on the administration’s behalf.
In a statement that also appeared to be targeted at Emanuel, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said Friday that the decennial census “should not be directed by political operatives working out of the White House.”
Asked about the controversy during his daily briefing Friday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seemed to be trying to find a middle ground.
Echoing the White House’s earlier statement, Gibbs said there’s “historical precedent,” for the director of the Census Bureau to work for the Commerce Secretary and to “work closely” with the White House as well.
"Everybody can be assured that any person that is picked by the President . . . . [will] implement the views of [the] president," said Gibbs. “And President Obama obviously is, believes that we have to for a lot of reasons have a fair and accurate count during the next census. That’s, as president of the United States, exactly what he intends to do.”
Gregg has yet to have his Senate confirmation hearing for the Cabinet post. Boehner also said Friday that the issue of control of the Census Bureau could be raised during Gregg’s confirmation process.
–CNN Polling Director Keating Holland contributed to this report.