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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 count.

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 sampling.

"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 in Congress.

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 census.

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 efforts.

"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.
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