Leading Trump Census pick causes alarm
The Trump administration is leaning toward naming Thomas Brunell, a Texas professor with no government experience, to the top operational job at the U.S. Census Bureau, according to two people who have been briefed on the bureau’s plans.
Brunell, a political science professor, has testified more than half a dozen times on behalf of Republican efforts to redraw congressional districts, and is the author of a 2008 book titled “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America.”
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The choice would mark the administration’s first major effort to shape the 2020 census, the nationwide count that determines which states lose and gain electoral votes and seats in the House of Representatives.
The fate of the census under President Donald Trump has been closely watched by voting-rights advocates worried that the administration — which has already made unsupported claims about voter fraud — might nudge it in directions that over- or undercount some Americans. Subtle bureaucratic choices in the wording and administration of the census can have huge consequences for who is counted, and how it shifts American voting districts.
The pick would break with the long-standing precedent of choosing a nonpolitical government official as deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau. The job has typically been held by a career civil servant with a background in statistics. It does not require Senate confirmation, so Congress would have no power to block the hire.
“If true, it signals an effort by the administration to politicize the census,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, former co-director of the Census Project, an organization that tracks the census. “It’s very troubling.”
Brunell was under consideration over the summer for the Senate-confirmable job of census director, but the administration declined to nominate him after receiving pushback from Capitol Hill, according to two people who track the census closely.
The White House and Census Bureau both referred comments to the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. The Commerce Department declined to comment. Brunell, reached by phone, declined to comment.
The hiring could be announced as soon as this week, though Trump administration personnel decisions often change at the last minute. One administration official said the situation remains “fluid.”
As deputy director of the Census Bureau, Brunell would become the highest-ranking permanent official at the agency. Though the deputy director technically reports to the census director, that slot is temporarily being filled by a career civil servant, since former director John Thompson resigned at the end of June. There is currently no nominee for a permanent director.
“This is worse than making him director,” said a former high-ranking Commerce Department official. “There still is going to be hell to pay on the optics. The Democrats and civil rights community will go nuts.”
Though it may seem like a dry bureaucratic task, the $16 billion decennial census has become the focus of hotly contested political arguments in a moment when the question of who counts as an American has risen to the top of the national debate.
The census attempts to count every person who lives within the U.S. borders, and Republicans have long sought to add a question asking respondents about their immigration status, including whether they are U.S. citizens. Democrats and many civil rights groups worry that adding a citizenship question would cause a huge drop in minority response rates, with recipients concerned about what the government would do with the information.
In January, a leaked draft of an executive order directed the Census Bureau to add such a question to the “long form” census, known as the American Community Survey, which is a longer, more detailed look at a subset of people living in the U.S. According to the two people who track the census closely, the administration is currently mulling a similar executive order.
So far, fears that the administration will complicate the census with a citizenship question have not panned out. Trump has not yet issued the order, and two senior administration officials said the issue is not yet being discussed at a high level in the West Wing. Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary — who once worked as a census enumerator himself — has previously argued that adding questions to the decennial would reduce response rates.
But rumors about the hiring of Brunell have reignited those concerns. The deputy director is effectively the chief operating officer and chief financial officer at the Census Bureau, making Brunell a critical person as the agency gears up for the 2020 census. The position has been filled by a temporary career civil servant since former deputy director Nancy Potok left in early January to accept an Obama administration appointment as the country’s chief statistician.