Senate confirms new Census Bureau director

Robert Santos has pledged to keep the agency free from political interference

Robert L. Santos, in July as he headed to his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Robert L. Santos, in July as he headed to his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 4, 2021 at 2:48pm

The Senate approved the first Latino director to head the Census Bureau, confirming Robert Santos to the director’s post following a bipartisan vote Thursday.

Santos, a vice president at the Urban Institute and president of the American Statistical Association, received unanimous support from Democrats and the votes of a handful of Republicans in the 58-35 vote. However, the vote was the most divided in more than a decade — the Senate confirmed the two previous Census Bureau directors by voice vote.

Majority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., argued Santos would be the best person to lead the agency after numerous political decisions by the administration of former President Donald Trump on the oversight of last year’s census.

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“We need to protect our census from the pressures of partisan politics, and Mr. Santos is a perfect fit,” Schumer said on the floor. “President Trump, true to form, spent years trying to politicize and weaponized our country’s census, going as far as maliciously trying to include citizenship questions and have counts of undocumented immigrants.”

Democrats criticized Trump administration decisions affecting the agency, such as a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to last year's questionnaire, adding several political appointees mid-census cycle, and trying to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count.

Santos himself argued against some of those points in his position at the Urban Institute. During his confirmation hearing, he promised to lead the agency apolitically.

"Although this is a political appointment, I am no politician," Santos told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Census results are used to draw legislative districts as well as guide more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually.

Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, praised Santos’ nomination in a statement Thursday, calling him “the right person for the job.”

“We know he will provide strong and steady leadership for the nation’s foremost federal statistical agency,” Henderson said.

Earlier in the day, the Senate advanced Santos’ nomination on a 61-36 procedural vote. Last month, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., blocked an attempt to confirm Santos through unanimous consent. Without offering evidence, Scott said Santos would not serve in a “fair and unbiased fashion.”

Santos would take over an agency that continues to wrap up the 2020 census process. The agency released redistricting data four months late this year after delays caused by the pandemic and numerous Trump administration decisions.

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The Census Bureau has faced other problems stemming from the pandemic, pulling back on the American Community Survey and the survey that serves as the official accuracy check of the decennial census.

Santos would also be the first Senate-confirmed person of color to lead the agency, which has routinely missed minority communities in its annual count. A report released by Santos’ current employer, the Urban Institute, estimated last year’s count missed more than 1.5 million people, all people of color.

Santos may also revive a Census Bureau effort to write a new, single race and ethnicity question on the next census form. For decades, the agency asked about race separate from Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, which experts have said may be less accurate. The Trump administration allowed that proposal to stagnate.

The Census Bureau has been led by acting Director Ron Jarmin since former Director Steven Dillingham resigned at the end of the Trump administration. President Joe Biden nominated Santos to serve out the remainder of Dillingham’s term, which expires later in the year, as well as a new five-year term that runs through the end of 2026.