WASHINGTON — Before former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke was nominated as commerce secretary, the 2010 census probably wasn't even on his radar screen.
As Locke begins to make the rounds on Capitol Hill, however, Republicans outraged over what they see as a White House effort to politicize the census could dominate his 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.
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.
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"It's always been political," said Andrew Reamer, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research center. "But what the White House did was a gift for Republicans. They stirred up a hornet's nest that was unnecessary to do."
At this point, no one expects the controversy over the census to derail Locke's nomination. Even so, he may find himself in an uncomfortable situation that wasn't of his making when Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee grill him.
The flap began when President Barack Obama nominated a Republican, New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, as commerce secretary. Black and Latino groups questioned the nomination, saying that Gregg, as a subcommittee chairman with control over the Census Bureau's budget, had sought to shape the 2000 census in a way that could have resulted in minorities being undercounted.
In an effort to defuse the criticism over Gregg's nomination, a senior Obama White House official said that 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 his nomination, but the White House has been on the defensive since.
In a statement Wednesday, Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, said that the census director would 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.
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 that the census will be an issue in Locke's confirmation hearing.
Locke didn't return calls seeking comment. As with all Cabinet appointees, the White House is keeping him under wraps until his confirmation. His hearing hasn't been scheduled.
Reamer said that the political jockeying surrounding the census usually took place two or three years before it was taken. Both parties have tried to shape it over the years, he said.
"Somehow the perception is (White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel will play with the numbers," Reamer said. "You can't change the numbers."
The census forms for 2010 already have been printed and a dress rehearsal has been held. Planning is already under way for the 2020 census, Reamer said.
Two years ago, the Bush administration didn't request funding for a community outreach program that's generally credited with having cut the undercounting of blacks and Hispanics by more than half, Reamer said. Congress eventually provided the funding. There were also concerns that the resignations of the two top Census Bureau officials in 2006 may have had political overtones, he said. The resignations came at a crucial time in census planning.
"The Bush White House was significantly involved in the management of the 2010 census," Reamer said. "The notion that the Obama White House would work closely with Commerce over the census is consistent with historical practice."
Reamer said that Republicans benefited when minorities were undercounted because they tended to vote Democratic.
For years, the parties clashed over whether the census should be based strictly on a "hard count" or should be scrubbed with a "statistical adjustment" to make sure that people in low-income communities, mostly minorities, were included. The issue was settled by a 1999 Supreme Court decision that outlawed statistical sampling as it applied to reapportioning seats in the House of Representatives but left unclear whether it could be used in drawing congressional district boundaries or determining federal funding levels for states.
Since the ruling, the Census Bureau has focused on expanding its outreach program to ensure that everyone is counted. The census always has been the nation's largest peacetime operation, Reamer said. Next year, it will hire 1.4 million people, open 500 offices and spend nearly $14 billion.
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