Why Commerce Matters

by Hugh Hamilton

When did the Department of Commerce become such a hotbed of political controversy? The withdrawal last week of Judd Gregg — a little-known Republican senator from New Hampshire nominated by President Barack Obama to head the Commerce Department — has focused considerable and unaccustomed public interest on the agency. (The president’s initial choice for the post – New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson – also withdrew last month amid some controversy). This is the type of excitement ordinarily reserved for portfolios like Treasury, State and Defense. But Commerce? Since when did Commerce matter this much?

Since it became responsible for administering the Census - that’s when.

It all goes back to the turn of the last century, when Congress authorized the establishment of a permanent census office. In 1903, the office was transferred from the Interior Department to the Department of Commerce and Labor. Ten years later, when Commerce and Labor were restructured as separate entities, the Census Bureau was retained at Commerce, where it has remained in a state of relative obscurity ever since. Yet, of all the myriad functions carried out by the Department of Commerce, none is so politically volatile nor more fundamental to our system of governance than the census. For starters, it is among the relatively few government functions explicitly mandated in the U.S. Constitution.

Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution requires that a decennial census be conducted of everyone living in the United States. The numbers are used to determine reapportionment in the House of Representatives and redistricting for legislative seats at the state and local levels. In addition to the actual enumeration of persons conducted every 10 years, the census is also used to construct a demographic profile of the country, including such characteristics as race and ethnicity, age, education, employment, income and home ownership, to name just a few. The government then uses that information to determine the allocation of billions of dollars in federal funds to local communities; USA Today estimated those funds last year at some $300 billion.

With that much money and power at stake, the census has evolved to become the largest peacetime mobilization of personnel and resources in the United States, involving as many as 860,000 temporary workers the last time around and a projected cost of some $14 billion for 2010.

And it’s all administered by the Department of Commerce.

Original Undercount

Of course, the census has always courted controversy; the process of enumeration was contentious from the start. Among the early conundrums confronting the framers of the Constitution was this: if political power would be based on legislative representation, and legislative representation was to be determined by the process of enumeration, how should the population of enslaved Africans be measured in this equation? The framers agreed to settle their differences by adopting the infamous “three-fifths clause,” whereby enslaved blacks would be counted for this purpose as three-fifths of a person; Native Americans not subject to taxation were excluded altogether.

Consider this the original “undercount” – a problem that has dogged virtually every census since 1790. For while the three-fifths clause was repealed with ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, the census has always struggled for any semblance of accuracy. In the census of 1870, for example, in which all inhabitants were counted as whole persons, Asian Americans were assigned their own racial classification for the first time. But they were collectively categorized as Chinese. The introduction of statistical sampling techniques and computerized tabulations in the 20th century were also accompanied by new challenges and controversies over the accuracy of the count.

By 2000, the cost of the undercount was being measured in billions of dollars worth of federal aid to mainly poor and working-class urban communities of color. Pricewaterhousecoopers, in a report commissioned by the Presidential Members of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, estimated in 2001 that the bulk of those losses would be felt in 58 of the nation’s largest counties, including Los Angeles, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Gilbert Casellas, Presidential Co-chair of the Monitoring Board, described the findings as “the most compelling evidence of the potential harm caused by the 2000 census undercount [which] will cost state and local governments billions of dollars in funds that are earmarked for the programs that largely serve our nation’s most disadvantaged.”

In the almost decade since then, additional challenges have emerged. The population today is larger and more diverse than at any time in our nation’s history. There are fears that in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, many Arab and Muslim Americans may be reluctant to participate because they have grown distrustful of the federal government. So, too, have many immigrant communities who feel they have been unfairly targeted and stigmatized.

These anxieties are not altogether misplaced. Indeed, some Republican lawmakers, like Candice Miller of Michigan, are reviving old arguments that seek to exclude non-citizens altogether from the census, on the ground that their presence alone caused nine seats in the House to change hands between the states in 2000. Supporters of this restrictive or exclusionary view argue that California gained six seats it would not have had otherwise, while Texas, New York, and Florida each gained one seat. Meanwhile, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin each lost a seat and Montana, Kentucky, and Utah each failed to receive a seat they would otherwise have gained.

Needless to say, if this nativist view were to prevail, millions of lawful permanent residents and other non-citizens who work hard and pay taxes would be left with no political representation at all, as their numbers would not be counted in the reapportionment or redistricting process. That sounds like a classic case of “taxation without representation” to me.

An Independent Census?

That the census has been a political football from its inception is clear. But might it function more efficiently if it were elevated to an independent agency unfettered by the constraints of electoral politics? It’s an attractive proposition.

Last September, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced legislation that would remove the Census Bureau from the Commerce Department and establish it as an independent agency — much like NASA. She plans to reintroduce the bill before the current Congress, with the idea of having the newly independent entity take effect in 2012 – after the next census. Her effort has been endorsed by every living former Director of the Census, who collectively served seven presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. As Maloney explained:

“After three decades of controversy surrounding the decennial census, the time has come to recognize the Census Bureau as one of our country’s premier scientific agencies and it should be accorded the status of peers such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Nearly every economic statistic reported in the news and relied upon by Americans is derived from data collected day in and day out by career professionals at the Census Bureau. Yet the average American would be hard pressed to find this vital agency even on the Commerce Department’s own organizational chart on the government’s website, where it is buried in the basement of 32 boxes on the chart.”

She’s right. I tried. See for yourself.