Judd Gregg and the Census-Counting Feud

During his public explanation of why he withdrew from consideration to be President Obama's commerce secretary, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg mentioned a dispute over control of the Census Bureau, which is gearing up for its 2010 decennial head count. But the feud is about how the count is conducted—and not just who controls it.

Democrats, particularly those representing majority minority districts, have long argued that limiting census totals to a tally of every live person who can be found is unfair because it "undercounts" those who might be difficult to interview, such as migrant workers and the homeless. Their solution: "statistical sampling" to adjust the data. The Supreme Court has ruled that estimated census data cannot be used to move congressional seats from one state to another, but according to legal experts, it can be used to redraw congressional districts within a state's borders.

Republicans vehemently oppose statistical sampling. And according to three Democratic congressional sources, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive issue, Gregg has previously used his clout to block census funding—which might explain why House Democrats flooded the White House with angry calls after Obama picked him. To cool them off, said one administration official, who also asked for anonymity, Obama decided that the new census director will work closely with "top echelon" White House staffers, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and political guru David Axelrod. Critics charged that this move would politicize the census. But the official insisted that the White House had assuaged Gregg by assuring him that the top candidate for the census vacancy was Kenneth Prewitt, a respected figure who served under President Bill Clinton. In any case, Obama sympathizers argued, it's already too late to overly influence the 2010 count. (Gregg could not be reached for comment.)

The GOP claims—and some experts agree—that statistical sampling is too primitive to be trusted. According to Berkeley professor Philip Stark, it had to be scrapped for the 1980 and 1990 tallies, and estimates produced for the 2000 census were so far off the mark that it didn't pass the "sniff test."