Departure of Bureau's Director Deepens Census Controversy
By Juliana Gruenwald, CQ Staff Writer
The surprise departure of the head of the Census Bureau further
complicates the 2000 census, which is already clouded by partisan
controversy in Congress over how to get the most accurate population
Census Bureau Director Martha Farnsworth Riche's announcement Jan. 12
that she will resign effective Jan. 30 deepened concerns among some
Republicans over the bureau's plans for the 2000 census.
Republicans spent much of the 1997 appropriations season battling the
administration over its plan to use statistical sampling, a technique that
uses data from the traditional head count to estimate the number of those
who did not respond to census takers.
Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., chairman of House Government Reform and
Oversight's new Census Subcommittee, which was created in 1997, said
Riche's departure increased his fear that "we are rapidly headed toward a
failed census in 2000." Miller, a former statistics teacher, has been
critical of sampling, saying while it may improve the overall national
count, its accuracy decreases for counting smaller groups.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Governmental
Affairs Committee, which is charged with holding a confirmation hearing for
the nominee to head the bureau, said Riche's departure "will leave a void"
at the bureau when it needs continued strong leadership.
A "dress rehearsal," a test of the techniques to be used in the 2000
census, was originally expected to begin in mid-March, but it has been
pushed back two weeks after Congress was several weeks late in
appropriating fiscal 1998 funding for the Commerce Department, which
includes the Census Bureau. The spending legislation (PL105119) was delayed
primarily over the sampling controversy.
Despite some Republicans' concerns, Democrat Tom Sawyer of Ohio, the
former chairman of a defunct subcommittee that oversaw the census when
Democrats controlled the House, said Riche's departure should not set the
census back "in any large material way."
Riche said she is resigning because she felt she had done the job she
was hired to do. But some congressional staffers and others said Riche, who
has held the post since 1994, also was tired of battling Republicans over
"I believe she just wanted to do a fair and accurate 2000 census, but
she was being forced to jump through all sorts of unnecessary political
hoops," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., a leading sampling supporter
Debate Far From Over
After counting 90 percent of the population in 2000, the bureau's plan
called for sampling to help estimate the remaining 10 percent.
Sampling supporters argue the technique would reduce an undercount that
was most acute among minorities. An undercount was evident in the 1990
Republican critics have said the Constitution calls for an "actual
enumeration." They also claim the method will produce a less accurate
census and could lead to political tampering.
Some sampling supporters, however, said Republican motives stem from
concerns that some House seats may tilt toward the Democrats if more
minorities, who often vote Democratic, are counted in the next census.
Republicans and the White House reached a compromise on the fiscal 1998
commerce spending legislation that is unlikely to put the issue to rest. It
allows work on sampling in fiscal 1998, but said the bureau would have to
test the sampling method in its dress rehearsal this spring. In the test,
sampling would be used to count people in Sacramento, Calif., but not in
Columbia, S.C., the other test city. The deal also called for a new
commission to monitor how the 2000 census is being conducted.
Choosing a Successor
While much of the criticism over sampling has come from House
Republicans, the Senate's top two GOP leaders, Majority Leader Trent Lott
of Mississippi and Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, also have come
out against sampling. Nickles also sits on the Governmental Affairs
Committee. Thompson has yet to take a stand on sampling.
Riche's departure has led to speculation that the administration might
bypass a potentially problematic confirmation process in the Senate by
appointing someone on an acting basis rather than nominating someone for a
permanent job. "Our fear is that they don't even try to get a real
director," said one Democratic congressional aide.
Observers on and off Capitol Hill have warned that choosing someone to
serve in the position on an acting basis could undermine the bureau's
"It's important that someone with authority -- which the acting
director often doesn't have -- is nominated to speak on policy issues [and]
take a more visible role publicly," said TerriAnn Lowenthal, a census
consultant and former staff director of Sawyer's census subcommittee.
An administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied
such reports and said the White House is looking for a permanent successor.
"We intend to appoint someone with technical expertise to the job on the
hope that . . . the issue will not be politicized in the Senate and we
could get confirmation," said the official.
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.