Clay: White House to Guide Census

Tuesday - 2/10/2009, 7:11am EST

WFED's Max Cacas

Exclusive interview with Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee

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By Max Cacas
FederalNewsRadio

In recent weeks, there have been published and broadcast reports that the White House has been planning to take more hands-on, day-to-day control of the Census Bureau, with the director reporting directly to the White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel instead of to the Commerce Secretary.

In an exclusive telephone interview with Missouri Democrat William Lacy Clay, chairman of the House Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee -- the House panel with direct oversight over the U.S. Census Bureau -- FederalNewsRadio asked the chairman if he was familiar with the reports concerning possible changes at the Census.

Yes, I am very familiar with those reports. I was briefed by President Obama and Rahm Emmanuel last weekend at our retreat in Williamsburg, and I welcome the President's, and Rahm Emmanuel's and the entire White House team's involvement in the upcoming 2010 decennial census. I think that will go a long way in helping Americans recognize the importance of being counted, as well as attaching a dollar figure to the Federal dollars that follow the population being counted.

Officially, the Census Bureau falls under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department, which is currently operating without a cabinet secretary. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, President Obama's first choice as Commerce Secretary, withdrew because he is currently the subject of a Federal investigation. Within the last few weeks, the President has nominated Senator Judd Gregg (R.-NH) to be his Commerce Secretary.

We asked Chairman Lacy if he believes any enabling legislation is needed to transfer control of the Census from Commerce to the White House.

I don't believe there are any laws involved here, because from my four terms in the House serving on this subcommittee both in the minority as well as the majority, the White House has always had a very hands-on approach when it came to Census matters. During the Bush Administration, there was plenty of direction and involvement that came from the White House, through the Commerce Secretary down to the Census Bureau director, so there's a natural change of command.

Since word of the new arrangement first emerged, conservative Republicans have publicly voiced their concerns about the proposed arrangement. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah) told Fox News the idea amounts to a "political land grab", and believes that Emmanuel, a former Democratic caucus leader in the House who also ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will use his position to affect the outcome of the census count. Under the U.S. Constitution, the size and makeup of every House district across the country is dependent on the census.

In addition, the Census affects the allocation of billions of dollars in Federal funds to numerous programs at the state and local level.

Asked to respond to charges leveled by Chaffetz and conservative critics, Lacy said:

That's totally preposterous to say that the Census could be used as a political tool. I don't believe that. I think it's very clear what the census' role and function is, and that is to count everyone.

Lacy says that based on the briefing he received during the Democrats congressional policy retreat in Williamsburg, he does not see this as a formal transfer of control of the Census from the Commerce Department to the White House, but rather the formalization of a "chain of command" for the next year and a half as details for the decennial census are finalized. He says it is no different from how the census was managed by the Bush White House.

Mindful of continued concerns in recent years regarding the handheld computer contract, and other delays and difficulties surrounding the use of advanced computer technology to facilitate the 2010 count, we asked Chairman Lacy if those issues affected the White House's early decision to take a more direct approach to the census.

"I think everyone is cognizant of the fact that the census is fast approaching," he replied, adding "that bureau needs to be ready to go out into the public, interact with them, and count every American."

Chairman Clay also said he anticipates holding a number of oversight hearings concerning the census during the first session of the 111th Congress.

Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary-designate Gregg is expected to be queried about the proposed White House role in the management of the Census at his upcoming confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. No date has been announced by the panel for that hearing.

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On the Web:

FederalNewsRadio - Obama names Gregg commerce secretary (2/3/2009)

Fox News: GOP Sounds Alarm Over Obama Decision to Move Census to White House (2/9/2009)

CQPolitics - White House: Census Director to 'Work Closely' with West Wing (2/5/2009)

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