Political Consequences from a Void in Census Leadership
Keeping with political and bureaucratic disorganization that has become a key characteristic of the Trump administration, in May of 2017, the Director of the United States Census Bureau, John Thompson, handed in an early resignation with no clear planned successor. Thompson, who was appointed as director by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2013, resigned with no clear explanation and more than 6 months to go in his term. As a result of Thompson’s sudden departure, President Donald Trump will get to nominate a successor to serve in the five year position responsible for overseeing the completion of the United States Census. An understated position, the Director of the United States Census Bureau oversees an operation responsible for providing data that define legislature and school districts, the apportionment of seats in the United States House of Representatives, planning decisions about community services, and the distribution of funds to local and state governments. However, with no nomination on behalf of the Trump administration to fill Thompson’s position, and no signs that a replacement will be nominated any time soon, the Census Bureau is without critical leadership leading up to the 2020 census. This census will have an immense impact on the nature and apportionment of political power across the country, and will have a definite say in America’s political future.
The United States Census has been conducted since 1790, with Thomas Jefferson as the original director. Every ten years since then, as mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, the United States Census Bureau counts every resident in the country. Data collected by the Census Bureau is used to determine allocation of federal funding, reapportion the United States Congress and draw congressional districts. Externally, census data is used by certain groups, such as civil rights enforcement agencies, to ensure fair housing and fair hiring at the local level. Data collected from the census are used to distribute more than $675 billion in federal funds to local and state governments that can affect state-provided services such as public health, transportation, and education. In Alabama, data from the 2020 census will determine whether or not Alabama keeps one of its congressional seats, of which currently six of its seven are held by Republicans. Thus, if the 2020 census were to undercount Alabama, an entire seat in Congress, that usually goes to a Republican, could be eliminated, and could thus contribute to a shift of power.
To ensure accuracy when data are collected in 2020, significant funding is required to test new collection techniques leading up to the official census. Results are dependant on the accuracy of data collection, such as what questions are asked and how census officials reach out to citizens. However, recently, the Bureau has had to cancel multiple field tests due to underfunding from Congress. With enhanced technological abilities, the Census Bureau had hoped to implement a new system that relies heavily on electronic data collection. However, without funding, the Bureau is forced to make decisions between expensive modernization techniques which would produce more accurate census results, and cheaper but less technologically advanced results. Without funding, the cheaper option is the only sustainable one, which can lead to mistakes in counting people that can affect redistricting efforts and political representation. In order to bypass this problem, a strong and respected director is required to lobby Congress and the White House for funds to ameliorate the potential for inaccuracy.
While census data have far reaching effects across governance, arguably the most important use of census data is its effects on redistricting and gerrymandering efforts. The purpose of census data is to draw districts that are “fair and representative of the United States.” Congressional districts are ideally redrawn to ensure that each district has roughly equal populations, and that each citizen within their district has an equal voice. However, this data is often manipulated by party members in a process called gerrymandering, in which district lines are shifted to give a single party an advantage in elections. This makes elections in census collection years particularly important, as the winning party has the opportunity to shift district lines, consolidate political power, and make subsequent loss in future elections more difficult.
As a result, the state of the 2020 census has huge effects for America’s political future. New accessible technology that allows for more precise results could give the winning majority party even more power to gerrymander, as better technology can identify the exact locations of groups in certain areas. By knowing the concentrations of each group, lawmakers can concentrate a group that would vote for an opposing party into a single district to limit the damage of opposition voters.
Thus, ensuring competent leadership of the United States Census Bureau is, by extension, essential for a fair and well functioning government. The Census Bureau only has three politically appointed positions: Director, Associate Director for Communications, and Head of Governmental Relations and Congressional Affairs. Beyond these three appointments, everything else is a career position, allowing employees to maintain job stability and develop census related expertise. However, it is undeniable that these three appointed positions are incredibly important. These appointed leaders must be able to work efficiently on a tight schedule and be able to negotiate with Congress and the White House to ensure funding.Since John Thompson’s resignation, Dr. Ron Jarmin, former Associate Director for Economic Programs, has been performing the “nonexclusive functions and duties of director.” Not only is the director of the United States Census Bureau vacant, but the Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer role is also unfilled. Despite the professional experience of the two men temporarily filling these positions, the Census Bureau now faces a vacuum in permanent and official leadership; something that is necessary to effectively carry out such an important government function.
Despite the void in leadership, the Trump administration has made no moves to prioritize the nomination of a new director. This lack of action is keeping with the administration’s trend of dismantling necessary bureaucracy. As of May of 2017, the Trump administration had announced nominations for only 96 of 557 key bureaucratic and diplomatic positions requiring Senate confirmation. In addition, key positions within the White House Budget Office and the Office of Personnel Management remain vacant, making it difficult to fill key government positions, such as Census Director, in a timely and effective manner. With this in mind, the role could remain without a nomination for the next year, not including the time that it will take for the Senate to officially confirm an appointment. With the 2020 census fast approaching, the Census Bureau does not have time to be without leaders.
The United States Census Bureau is without critical leadership leading up to the 2020 census that will affect the apportionment of political power nationwide. When or if the Trump administration does nominate a new Census Director, it is necessary for the person to be nonpartisan. In order for the census to work, people need to have faith in its results. Civil rights organizations worry that if ethnic or racial minorities are undercounted, potentially due to political reasons, federal funding could be stripped from necessary programs. Public education and transportation funding in certain areas could be deprioritized. Districts could be redrawn to help the goals of a particular party. Effective leadership here, and within all of the still vacant governmental positions remains, absolutely necessary for a functional government and has grave political consequences if not prioritized.
Taken from the United States Census Bureau. “Putting field infrastructures and offices in place throughout the country,” has been delayed leaving major implications for the completion of the rest of the tasks on the timeline leading up to the 2020 census.