U.S. census director says the bureau needs to reduce chances of meddling after Trump

Of note:

The U.S. Census Bureau needs to work on ways the limit the potential for political interference with future national headcounts, the bureau’s director, Robert Santos, told NPR on Monday.

“I’m not too interested in looking back on and relitigating the events that occurred with the previous administration. But looking forward, I think it’s really important for us to make sure that there are policies and regulations that are in place to reduce the chance of meddling,” Santos said in one of his first media interviews since becoming the bureau’s leader in January.

After NPR previously reported on Santos’ comments about the Biden administration drafting new regulations to try to better protect the bureau from any interference from its parent agency, the Commerce Department, Santos said in an email that he misspoke.

“I am not aware of any regulations being drafted and apologize for the confusion,” Santos said.

Instead, he added, he meant to refer to ongoing work by the administration’s Scientific Integrity Task Force on improving the policies of federal agencies, including the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department.

Last month, a report by that task force, which included the bureau’s highest-ranking civil servant, Deputy Director Ron Jarmin, warned that the bureau and other federal statistical agencies “must protect against interference in their efforts to create and release data that provide a set of common facts to inform policymakers, researchers, and the public.”

The assessment came after years of meddling with the 2020 census by former President Donald Trump’s administration, which attempted to add a hotly contested question about U.S. citizenship status to the head count’s forms; added a series of political appointees with no obvious qualifications to the bureau’s top ranks; and cut short counting efforts after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed many of the bureau’s operations.

The moves by the previous administration have fueled calls for new ways to safeguard the once-a-decade head count’s integrity.

In recent decades, there have been proposals to move the bureau out of the Commerce Department and make it an independent agency. These efforts include bills in Congress introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who currently chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

“I will support whatever it is that Congress decides that they want to do,” Santos, who is expected to serve as the bureau’s director through 2026, told NPR. “There are many issues that need to be worked out if an independent agency was created. However, I’m comfortable with the current structure, and I will work with Congress in terms of whatever they decide.”

The first Latino to head the federal government’s largest statistical agency, Santos is weeks into a political appointment that has landed him in not only U.S. history books but also a hotbed of controversy over the results of the 2020 head count.

Even though the results have already been used to reallocate each state’s share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as to redraw maps of voting districts across the country, questions about accuracy linger over the count.

On March 10, the bureau is set to start releasing results of its own assessment of the data’s quality.

Concerned about the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and interference by the Trump administration, many census watchers are hoping to see to what extent the 2020 census may continue a decades-long pattern — the overcounting of people who identify as white and not Latino and the undercounting of people of color.

Flaws in the count carry big implications for political representation, the distribution of some $1.5 trillion a year and the country’s understanding of the people living in the United States. Santos and other bureau officials are under pressure to come up with new methods to mitigate the effects of a turbulent census.

Santos is also stepping into a heated debate over privacy protections applied to the 2020 census redistricting data and other more detailed information, just as the bureau ramps up its planning for the 2030 census, which could bring new ways of collecting data on race and ethnicity, particularly about Latinos and people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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