Today’s surprise announcement by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) that he is withdrawing his nomination as Commerce Secretary has a lot of implications, large and small. But one thing is very clear: his withdrawal removes a potential threat to a well-conducted decennial Census in 2010.
Whatever his merits and demerits generally as a senator, Gregg has been a consistent enemy of efforts to let the Census Bureau conduct a count using anything like aggressive efforts to, well, count Americans. As a New York Times editorial observed when Gregg was first nominated:
The Census Bureau is a major agency within the Commerce Department, and the decennial census — the next one is in 2010 — is a mammoth undertaking. After years of mismanagement and underfinancing by the Bush administration, the bureau is so ill prepared to conduct next year’s count that Congressional investigators have warned that it is at high risk of failure unless corrective action is taken immediately.
Mr. Gregg was never a friend of the census. As chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the Commerce Department’s budget, he frequently tried to cut the bureau’s financing. In 1999, he opposed emergency funds for the 2000 census requested by President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled House.
An accurate census obviously has a big political impact, given its impact on reapportionment of Congress and the fifty state legislatures. But it also has an enormous effect on all sorts of federal programs that distribute dollars based on census figures concerning the concentration of various population groups in various states and localities. And beyond government, the census is the most critical database for virtually every measurement of American society, in business, in the social sciences, and in journalism.
It’s not totally clear when the Obama administration decided to pair the Gregg nomination with a proposal to make the census director report directly to the White House. But Gregg’s own statement of withdrawal called the census issue one of the two problems–the other being the economic stimulus legislation–that kept him from moving forward with this nomination.
There will be plenty of time later to analyze why Obama made this flawed appointment. It doesn’t really matter, ultimately. But its withdrawal is good news for anyone who wants a fair and complete Census.