Myths and falsehoods about the 2010 census and the Obama administration

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN, NATHAN TABAK & JOCELYN FONG

In discussing Sen. Judd Gregg's decision to withdraw his nomination for commerce secretary, media outlets have echoed myths and falsehoods about the census, advancing conservative misinformation about potential census procedures, the Obama administration, and progressives.

Several media reports have recently advanced the Republican claim that Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) withdrew his nomination for commerce secretary over the issue of whether the White House would oversee the 2010 census, with these same reports failing to note Gregg's February 12 statement that the census was "not a major issue" in his decision to withdraw. Moreover, in the context of the Gregg withdrawal, the media have echoed other myths and falsehoods about the census, advancing conservative misinformation about potential census procedures, the Obama administration, and progressives.

Those myths and falsehoods include the following:

1. Obama plans to move control of the census from the Commerce Department to the White House

During the February 13 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough contradicted White House statements by claiming that "the White House had said we're going to take [the census] out of the Commerce Department, where it had always been, and we're going to bring it into the White House, which causes so many problems." He later added, "But this is the rawest of raw politics, where you're going to take the census out of the Commerce Department, where as you said, they're professionals who have done this forever, and bring it inside the White House." Similarly, as Media Matters for America documented, during the February 14 broadcast of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, senior news analyst Daniel Schorr claimed that in response to the concerns of "the black caucus," "the White House said, 'OK, [the census] won't be under the Department of Commerce. We'll take it to the White House.' "

In fact, the White House has repeatedly denied that it intends to "take" the census "out of the Commerce Department." In a February 5 statement, White House spokesman Benjamin LaBolt stated only that the White House planned to "return" to the "model" of the "historic precedent for the director of the Census, who works for the commerce secretary and the president, to work closely with White House senior management." During a February 6 briefing, when asked whether the White House had "moved the control of the Census Bureau into the White House for the purposes of the 2010 census," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stated: "No ... I think the historical precedent of this is there's a director of the census that works for the Secretary of Commerce, the President, and also works closely with the White House, to ensure a timely and accurate count. And that's what we have in this instance." Moreover, following Republican outcry concerning the White House's stated intention to "work closely with" the Census Bureau director, LaBolt reportedly said on February 11 that "[t]his administration has not proposed removing the census from the Department of Commerce and the same congressional committees that had oversight during the previous administration will retain that authority."

2. Statistical sampling produces skewed results

On the February 12 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, discussing Gregg's decision to withdraw his nomination, host Chris Matthews asserted that, unlike Gregg, Democrats prefer a "loosey-goosey census approach" because "it counts more Democrats."

However, in 1997, when Republicans attempted to prohibit the Clinton administration from using statistical sampling in the 2000 census to count those who may be missed by the mail and door-to-door counting process, the Center for Science, Technology and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote that "statistical sampling is widely regarded by the science community as an effective and accurate tool. The National Academy of Sciences has repeatedly endorsed sampling as a way of conducting a more cost-effective and more accurate census, as have professional societies like the American Statistical Association [ASA]." Indeed, ASA argued in an amicus brief filed to the Supreme Court regarding the 1999 case, Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives, that "statistically designed sampling" is "a valid, important, and generally accepted scientific method for gaining accurate knowledge about widely dispersed human populations" and that "properly designed sampling is often a better and more accurate method of gaining such knowledge than an inevitably incomplete survey of all members of such a population." ASA further stated, "There are no sound scientific grounds for rejecting all use of statistical sampling in the 2000 census."

3. The Supreme Court has ruled that statistical sampling for apportionment is unconstitutional

In a February 13 article, Washington Times senior White House correspondent Joseph Curl and reporter Kara Rowland falsely suggested that a 1999 Supreme Court case decided that the Constitution barred the government from using statistical sampling to apportion congressional seats. The Times stated that "[m]inority groups, quietly encouraged by Democrats, led a charge in 2000 to challenge the census, urging that statistical sampling and computer models -- not the head-count 'actual enumeration' mandated by the Constitution -- should be employed. That despite a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that sampling could not be used to apportion congressional seats." In fact, as Media Matters noted, in Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives, the Supreme Court explicitly did not consider -- much less decide -- whether the Constitution barred the use of sampling in congressional apportionment. The court's majority opinion states: "[W]e conclude that the Census Act" -- a congressional statute -- "prohibits the proposed uses of statistical sampling in calculating the population for purposes of apportionment. Because we so conclude, we find it unnecessary to reach the constitutional question presented."

4. The Clinton administration opposed calls from "minority groups" on sampling

As Media Matters noted, on the February 14 Weekend Edition Saturday, Schorr stated that "minority groups and the black caucus have objected to having the census come under a Republican conservative, because they say that there was an undercount in the census of up to 6 million in the last census." Host Scott Simon replied, "But that was under the Clinton administration. That was under a Democratic administration." Schorr echoed Simon's statement, saying, "It was under a Democratic administration." In fact, contrary to Simon's suggestion that the Commerce Department under Clinton was opposed to the calls by "minority groups and the black caucus" to use statistical sampling for the decennial census, the Clinton administration did plan to use sampling for the 2000 census; however, the Supreme Court decided that while a federal statute required the Census Bureau to use sampling for purposes other than reapportionment "if feasible," the court ruled that the statute prohibited sampling for reapportionment. Subsequently, the Bush administration reversed the Clinton administration's plan to use statistical sampling for census data released to states for the purposes of congressional redistricting.

Contrary to Simon's suggestion that the Clinton administration opposed the use of sampling in the census, the Supreme Court noted in Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives that the Commerce Department under Clinton "announced a plan to use two forms of statistical sampling in the 2000 Decennial Census to address a chronic and apparently growing problem of 'undercounting' of some identifiable groups, including certain minorities, children, and renters." In the case, the court stated in its majority opinion that the Census Act "prohibits the proposed uses of statistical sampling in calculating the population for purposes of apportionment," but also stated that the statute required the Commerce Department to use sampling in the decennial census for other purposes "if feasible." Discussing the 1976 amendments to the Census Act, the Court stated:

[T]he amendments served a very important purpose: They changed a provision that permitted the use of sampling for purposes other than apportionment into one that required that sampling be used for such purposes if "feasible." They also added to the existing delegation of authority to the Secretary to carry out the decennial census a statement indicating that despite the move to mandatory use of sampling in collecting nonapportionment information, the Secretary retained substantial authority to determine the manner in which the decennial census is conducted. [emphases in original]

Subsequently, however, former President Bush's first commerce secretary, Don Evans, decided that for the purpose of redistricting, the department would release as its "official data" only data that had not been adjusted by sampling, thereby reversing the Clinton administration's policy. In announcing his decision at a March 6, 2001, press conference, Evans stated that he was following the recommendations of the Executive Steering Committee for Accuracy and Coverage Evaluation Policy (ESCAP), a group of 12 senior career bureau officials responsible for reviewing census and survey data and recommending whether or not to use the adjusted census data. In his press conference, Evans said that ESCAP had been unable to resolve issues with the sampling conducted for the census within the required timeframe.

5. The census was a "major issue" in Gregg's decision to withdraw nomination for commerce secretary

Consistent with Republicans' claims that the census was the motivating factor in Gregg's decision to withdraw, several media reports noted that Gregg cited concerns about the census in a February 12 press release announcing he was withdrawing his nomination to be commerce secretary; but these reports ignored Gregg's subsequent statement during a February 12 press conference that the census was "not a major issue" in his decision to withdraw. As Media Matters documented, while Gregg stated in his press release that the census and the stimulus bill are "irresolvable conflicts for me," when asked, during his press conference, "What role did issues with the census play?" Gregg responded: "The census was only a slight catalyzing issue. It was not a major issue." Asked if he could "elaborate on the census as being an issue," Gregg responded: "Well, I don't need to elaborate. I know it was a slight issue." And when he was asked: "Well, what was the issue, from your perspective?" Gregg replied : "It wasn't a big enough issue for me to even discuss what the issue was."

From the February 13 Washington Times article:

The Obama administration is downplaying how closely the White House would oversee the Census Bureau. The White House on Wednesday said Mr. Obama is committed to a "complete and accurate count through a process that is free from politicization." But Thursday, Mr. LaBolt added: "As they have in the past, White House senior management will work closely with the census director given the number of decisions that will need to reach the president's desk."

Rep. Lamar Smith, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said not so.

"We checked with the Congressional Research Service, and there is no precedent for this, despite what the administration might say," he asserted.

Minority groups, quietly encouraged by Democrats, led a charge in 2000 to challenge the census, urging that statistical sampling and computer models - not the head-count "actual enumeration" mandated by the Constitution - should be employed. That despite a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that sampling could not be used to apportion congressional seats.

"Adjusting is statistical abstraction or extrapolation that gives a select few the ability to go in after the count is done in the census and adjust the numbers and adjust the numbers in ways they see and deem fit," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican and ranking member on the census subcommittee.

The Republicans on Thursday went so far as to threaten to file a lawsuit if the White House steps too far into how the 2010 census is conducted and counted. House Minority Leader Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio also announced that he is creating a census task force composed of Republican lawmakers from the Judiciary, House Administration, and Oversight and Government Reform committees to oversee the process.

From the February 12 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Everybody out there knows they're either a Republican or a Democrat. There are some independents, but most people are used to thinking one way. How could a guy like Judd Gregg, who grew up in a Republican family, a Yankee Republican, think that he could sit in a Cabinet with a bunch of liberal Democrats, say we're going to have sort of this loosey-goosey census approach -- which the Democrats like because it counts more Democrats -- and he's going to go along with a big-spending Democratic stimulus bill, when he's a conservative Republican?

From the February 13 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

SCARBOROUGH: Andrea, though, he's talking about the stimulus package. He knew the stimulus package was going to go against what he believed in.

ANDREA MITCHELL (NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent): He voted against it in committee.

SCARBOROUGH: Let -- I got a call three days ago from a Republican on the Hill, enraged, "Have you seen," and they said, "what Rahm is trying to do with the census?"

MITCHELL: I think that's the subtext.

SCARBOROUGH: And you're -- you're hearing similar concerns about the census, and how that may have played into this.

MITCHELL: Well, we do know that the Congressional Black Caucus raised fierce objections to Judd Gregg when he was announced because of the census. Because the census is the most important issue to them right now coming out of the Commerce Department. It is the -- what they claim is the underreporting of people in their districts, which leads to a huge loss of federal money --

SCARBOROUGH: And we're --

MITCHELL: -- and of potentially in redistricting to legislative seats.

SCARBOROUGH: And we're obviously coming -- we're gonna have redistricting.

MITCHELL: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: And what Democrats want is they want you to just -- they don't want people actually counted in some of these areas. They want the counting plus estimates. Let's just sort of estimate how many people live in this area.

MITCHELL: And they have a point. Their point is that it is hard to account for people --

DAVID GREGORY (Meet the Press host): Right.

MITCHELL: -- who don't have telephones, who aren't answering calls from the census, who are afraid of process servers or others who come to the doors. They won't even talk to census-takers.

GREGORY: But let's --

MITCHELL: So this is the diennial census.

GREGORY: And they want to bring all this process into the White House for approval, which is a big -- which is a big piece of this.

MITCHELL: But this would -- yeah, this -- the piece of this --

SCARBOROUGH: And that's what Rahm wanted to do. He wanted to -- the Cabinet -- the White House had said we're going to take it out of the Commerce Department, where it had always been --

GREGORY: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: -- and we're going to bring it into the White House, which causes so many problems.

MITCHELL: It's the whole question of whether or not the census can be kept away from politics. And in the Commerce Department, there are professionals, career people, who have for years done the census, so the fear is among some critics that if there were a promise -- and we have to confirm this -- but if there were a promise that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and the chief negotiator on the stimulus bill, is going to be having more control over the census, that that would be an issue, one issue --

GREGORY: Right.

MITCHELL: -- that Judd Gregg would object to.

GREGORY: Now Judd Gregg says that this was not a major catalyst, but it was clearly, clearly an issue.

SCARBOROUGH: It sure was with the Republicans. Could -- and explain to people out there that say, "Oh, this is much ado about nothing." I had this Republican friend on the Hill say, "Could you imagine if Karl Rove decided they were going to take the 2000 census --

GREGORY: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: -- out of the Commerce Department, and have he and Dick Cheney run it?"

GREGORY: Right, and become -- become, you know, run the risk of becoming incredibly politicized.

[...]

SCARBOROUGH: I don't think we're telling the bigger part of the story, which I think, in the end, is going to be the fact that, earlier this week, you had the announcement that Rahm Emanuel was -- it's funny just to say it -- was gonna take over the census.

CHUCK TODD (NBC News chief White House correspondent): It was raw politics, right. This was raw --

SCARBOROUGH: It was the rawest -- this is the sort of raw politics you would expect from somebody that would, I don't know, mail a dead fish to a political opponent. But this is the rawest of raw politics --

MITCHELL: And it was in the stimulus bill.

SCARBOROUGH: -- where you're going to take the census out of the Commerce Department, where as you said, they're professionals who have done this forever, and bring it inside the White House. I can't even imagine, [Washington Post columnist] Gene [Robinson], what Democrats would have said if Karl Rove had come up with that idea.

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