Senators Call On Obama to Appoint Census Director

Posted March 5, 2009 at 12:42pm

Updated: 5:30 p.m.

A group of bipartisan Senators called on the Obama administration today to appoint a permanent director of the Census Bureau to oversee a politically delicate process that is just 13 months away.

“We are at a critical juncture. I do not think it is overstating things to say that the 2010 Census is approaching a state of emergency,— Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said during a hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security.

While Carper estimated that the 2010 Census will cost around $13 billion, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) grimly predicted that figure will increase to “$18 or $19 billion— by next year.

Witnesses speaking before the subcommittee, which included former census directors and government officials, agreed that a permanent bureau head should be named immediately and that the office should begin ramping up to prepare for the national head count.

With the census just 13 months away, Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, warned, “This year will be one of the most crucial time period in this decade-long census cycle.—

House Republicans, meanwhile, spent Thursday lobbing politically charged questions at the the acting Census Bureau chief about the influence the White House has over agency activities.

During a hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives, Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) took turns trying to pin Thomas Mesenbourg, acting director of the Census Bureau, on his views on whether politicians should be directing his agency.

“We have not made decisions based on any kind of political pressure; that’s been my experience over 36 years,— Mesenbourg said. “It’s clear the Congress has a responsibility to oversee our operations. I would agree with that.—

Asked if he felt the Census Bureau should have a director, Mesenbourg declined to take a position. “We’ve always had a director. I think a director would be useful for us,— he said.

Mesenbourg noted that he has “no ambitions— to be the agency’s permanent chief. He said his job is simply “to keep the train moving down the track so, when we have a director, we’ll be in a better place than we were before.—

Westmoreland questioned Goldenkoff as to whether the Census Bureau has the in-house talent to oversee the 2010 Census without a permanent director.

Bureau employees “are extremely competent,— Goldenkoff said. “But we need someone who is a strategic leader and who goes through the conventional selection process.—

He emphasized that contact between the Census Bureau director and the White House is “not necessarily a bad thing— since the two entities have to keep the census on track.

Republicans have been up in arms about the 2010 Census since the White House announced that its director would report to President Barack Obama rather than to the Commerce secretary. Obama made the announcement at a time when Republican Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) was being considered for Commerce secretary.

Gregg withdrew his nomination, and Obama has tapped former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat.

Subcommittee ranking member Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said he was “encouraged— that Locke said he wants to keep census operations under his agency and free of political pressure from the White House.

That means sampling must not be used “in any way to manipulate census date for political gain,— McHenry said.