Look past Jim Comey: The Census director's sudden resignation may create serious long-term problems

Why are Republicans attacking the Census Bureau? Because they don't want an accurate count of Americans

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 11, 2017 11:59AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Mark Wilson/blackwaterimages)
(Getty/Mark Wilson/blackwaterimages)

The news that President Donald Trump, in a fit of childish petulance, fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday is understandably dominating the news cycle. But on the same day, the director of another major federal agency, John Thompson of the Census Bureau, also left his job in a move that came as a surprise to those who follow the agency's goings-on. In many ways, this sudden resignation of a major agency director is just as troubling as Comey's outright firing.

The Trump administration is trying to spin Thompson's departure as a simple decision to retire, which is a narrative that's impossible to swallow, considering the abrupt nature of his exit. The reality is that Thompson was at the center of an ugly debate over funding, with Republicans trying to slash the bureau's budget well below what he felt he needed in order to conduct an accurate nationwide census. It's widely believed Thompson left rather than deal with an untenable situation of trying to do a good job without adequate resources.

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Republicans love cutting government budgets in order to fund tax cuts for rich people, of course, but the choice to target the Census Bureau is alarming because it has clear political ramifications. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is reason to worry that Republicans may not want the bureau to do too good a job collecting the 2020 data on Americans. Having a full and accurate picture of the American population cuts against many conservative goals, so it's no surprise that the party of "alternative facts" is not particularly interested in letting the Census Bureau do its job.

The most obvious concern is that census data is used to determine political representation, which is critical to a functioning democracy.

“Any turnover, any lack of funding, puts at risk a full and accurate count of every person in the country, and that has huge implications for fair representation," explained Dan Vicuña, the national redistricting manager for Common Cause

“There’s already a problem, even under the best of circumstances, with certain communities, especially communities of color, being counted fully and thus getting full representation in Congress, state legislatures and city councils," continued Vicuña, whose nonpartisan group fights for fair representation and against corruption in government. "Compounding that problem by underfunding the count is a legitimate threat to democracy.”

In our phone conversation, Vicuña argued that underfunding the Census Bureau could lead to a situation where "political power will be distributed disproportionately to white voters, to people who are wealthier."

Of course, none of that sounds bad to Republicans, who have already spent years trying to undermine the political power and representation of people of color through voting-rights restrictions and racialized gerrymandering strategies. Under the circumstances, underfunding the Census Bureau so it simply can't provide a full and accurate count of how many people are living in racially diverse — and Democratic-leaning — communities has many benefits for Republicans.

But the voting rights issue isn't the only concern raised by the budget fight that led to Thompson's sudden departure. Allegra Chapman, the director of voting and elections at Common Cause, worries that undermining the Census Bureau constitutes an attack on the administrative duties of the federal government generally.

“The work that this bureau does is really important to the efficiency of government in general and making sure that Americans are getting everyday service to which they’re entitled," Chapman explained over the phone. “Using that survey, we know more about people’s day to day lives: their jobs, how much education they have, whether they’re a veteran, whether they rent."

That data is critical to determining everything from housing policy to educational allotments and even managing the 911 emergency call system. If the data isn't accurate, a lot of Americans could be left out of receiving services.

“Trump has talked from the get-go about the need for infrastructure," Chapman pointed out. "I don’t know how he’s going to do anything about infrastructure if he doesn’t have information about what’s happening in the country at large. You don’t start building bridges in places unless you have this accurate snapshot.”

It hardly requires mentioning that any promise made by Trump to help Americans can immediately be viewed as something between a gross misstatement and an outright lie. This is the same man who promised that he would make sure all Americans had health insurance but then got to work immediately with congressional Republicans to make sure that 24 million Americans who would otherwise have coverage will likely go without it.

As Chapman pointed out, this attack on Census funding is consistent with another stated goal of some members of the Trump administration — to undermine the operations of government.

Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon has vowed publicly to fight daily for the "deconstruction of the administrative state," by which he means the system of federal regulations and agencies, administered by the executive branch, that helps run the country and the economy in particular. Bannon sees the various agencies as roadblocks to economic growth; the unwillingness of the Trump administration to fill hundreds of vacancies at various federal agencies is taken by many as an extension of this desire to see the federal government's administrative arm fall apart from mismanagement.

Bannon didn't pull this idea out of his ass. The influential conservative policy analyst Grover Norquist quipped in 2001 that he wanted to reduce the federal government to the size "where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." This demonizing "administrative state" language can be traced to think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which advocate for a serious reduction or end to federal agencies that interfere with a libertarian utopia where the rich gobble up all the money and the rest of us are left with few resources and no real political power.

The Census Bureau is central, as Chapman said, to running the federal government. Undermining the ability of that agency to do its job will have ramifications for all other agencies in the government — which is most of them — that rely on Census data in order to make decisions and do their jobs. 

Perhaps that's why Republicans have long tried to stoke antagonism toward the Census Bureau among their base. The Republican National Committee has repeatedly denounced the agency's efforts to collect thorough demographic data on the U.S. population, and conservative media outlets periodically gin up hatred against the bureau. Census data captures our nation's growing racial diversity, as well as trends like the growth in the number of unmarried adults — all facts that some people on the right simply don't want the public to know about. The more we know about how Americans really live today, the harder it is for Republicans to enact a backward-looking conservative agenda. No wonder they are trying to kneecap the Census Bureau's ability to do its job.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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