All of America was watching Barack Obama on Jan. 20 as he promised to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." But few thought that, within a month, controversy would arise over the Constitution's census clause.
This was a revolutionary step. Censuses had been conducted since ancient times, as readers of the Gospels know. But the United States was the first nation to conduct a census at regular intervals. And it was the first nation to base legislative representation on population. Not many federal agencies perform functions specifically set out in the Constitution. The Bureau of the Census does.
Today, the census determines more than representation. It also determines the amount of federal funding for a vast array of programs. As a result, politicians have an incentive to try to maximize the numbers of their constituencies. On occasion, they have rejected results they have found distasteful. After the 1920 census showed an increasing proportion of urban dwellers, Congress refused to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives among the states.
But under prodding from President Herbert Hoover, a law was passed setting a formula for automatic reapportionment based on the census numbers starting in 1930 and continuing to this day.
You didn't hear much about the census on the campaign trail. But controversy flared when Obama nominated Republican Sen. Judd Gregg to head the Department of Commerce, which has housed the Census Bureau since 1903. Almost immediately, there were protests from Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (who cast the lone vote against military action in Afghanistan in 2001) and Hispanic groups. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declared that the Census Bureau would report directly to the West Wing of the White House.
Gregg, perhaps miffed that a major function of the office for which he had been nominated would be taken over by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, withdrew his name from consideration to be secretary. No new nominee has been named, but the issue remains: Will the politicians cook the numbers?