Census nominee pledges a politics-free count

Census DirectorPresident Barack Obama’s pick to lead the Census Bureau is pledging to stand up to congressional Republicans ? and the White House if necessary ? and to stick to sound science when leading the high-stakes head count.

If he cannot, he will resign, nominee Robert M. Groves said.

In a 41-page Senate questionnaire obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, Groves defended his push for statistical sampling in the 1990 census to make up for an undercount of millions of mostly minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats ? a move that was then decried by the Republican commerce secretary as political tampering. Groves is a veteran survey researcher at the University of Michigan.

While Groves said the use of sampling in 2010 was unlikely given the little time remaining, he would not say whether he would support other measures such as a government halt to immigration raids. “I will work with all agencies of government to assure the best census this country can achieve,” Groves wrote when asked if he would seek to scale back enforcement.

On matters of science, Groves was unequivocal. “The White House can have no role,” he said. “If the director is perceived to be a pawn of one or another political ideological perspective, the credibility of the statistical system is threatened.”

Groves said if he encounters undue partisan interference from the White House or elsewhere that he cannot resist, “I will resign and work outside the system to stop the abuse.”

The Senate Homeland Security committee is scheduled to hold Groves’ confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Republicans on the panel have praised the nominee’s scientific credentials but say they will reserve final judgment until after the hearing.

“He needs to follow the law,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “The Census Bureau is under severe time constraints to get an accurate count, so what we really need to get at is whether he has the organizational skills. We don’t want lawsuits over a census.”

In his questionnaire, Groves:

? Cast the Census Bureau as woefully outdated, saying it lacks scientific talent due to a recent and upcoming wave of retirements.

? Acknowledged he lacked extensive management experience to run the bureau’s sprawling operations but said he was up to the task.

Separately, the Commerce Department said it had hired Kenneth Prewitt, who headed the 2000 census count, as a part-time paid consultant to Secretary Gary Locke on 2010 census issues. He will be part of a team of experts working temporarily to present recommendations later this year to the census director.

Prewitt, now a Columbia University professor, served last year as an adviser to Republican Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. At the time, Prewitt privately urged the Bush administration to push for a change in federal laws to allow for broader use of statistical sampling, or “accept the likelihood of a distributionally inaccurate census that is more undemocratic.”

“I appreciate that … sampling will be viewed as an unrealistic option,” Prewitt wrote in the memo of March 17, 2008, provided to the AP, noting the likely political resistance from Republicans who oppose census sampling methods that tend to favor Democrats.

“However, there are times when crisis conditions produce political courage,” he said.

Gutierrez never followed up on that recommendation for broader use of sampling.

Groves, 60, a former census associate director from 1990-92, said he joined several officials in recommending the 1990 census be statistically adjusted because the “adjusted estimates were of higher quality than the unadjusted.”

The recommendation came amid a fierce political dispute that prompted White House staff under President George H.W. Bush to call advisers to the bureau and express opposition. The Census Bureau was then overruled by Republican Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, who called the proposed adjustment “political tampering.”

The Supreme Court later ruled in 1999 that the wording of the federal law barred broad uses of statistical sampling to apportion House seats. Justices, however, indicated that adjustments could be made to the population count when redrawing congressional boundaries and distributing federal money.

In his questionnaire, Groves indicated that he believed adjusted counts could help improve the census but said he had no plans to push sampling in 2010 or beyond.

“I believe the Supreme Court ruling stands as the guidance on this issue,” he said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Groves will take over at a critical time. Census officials acknowledge that tens of millions of residents in dense urban areas ? about 14 percent of the U.S. population ? are at high risk of being missed because of language problems and an economic crisis that has displaced homeowners.

The government is devoting up to $250 million of the $1 billion in stimulus money for outreach, particularly for traditionally hard-to-count minorities.

But Hispanics, blacks and other groups are warning that traditional census outreach will not be enough, citing in particular rising anti-immigration sentiment after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. A nationwide group of Latino ministers has called for a boycott of the census unless Obama moves forward on his pledge to pass immigration reform.

Obama last month announced the selection of Groves, who has spent decades researching ways to improve survey response rates and designing surveys for agencies from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to the EPA and National Institutes of Health.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.