Why is the Census Bureau still without Senate-Confirmed leadership?

Submitted by NYCD16-INDIVISIBLE member Bob Volin.

Since former Director John Thompson resigned from the Census Bureau at the end of June 2017, the Trump administration has made no move to nominate a new permanent Director for Senate confirmation, even though the Bureau should be actively gearing up for the 2020 census. The administration is recently reported to be leaning toward naming a Deputy Director: Thomas Brunell, a political science professor from Texas. Brunell has zero government or administrative experience; his attractiveness to the administration is purely partisan. He has testified on behalf of Republicans in a half-dozen gerrymandering court cases and wrote a book titled Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America. His research on redistricting and voting-rights cases has been used by the G.O.P. to defend gerrymandering.

Why Brunell’s appointment remains in limbo is an interesting mystery. When his name was floated late in the summer, he got a lot of pushback in the senate and so the administration chose not to put his name forward for nomination as Director. Now it’s reported that they are thinking of appointing him as Deputy Director which would not entail senate confirmation. But what’s holding them up? Perhaps it’s a risk/benefit analysis.

Brunell’s background would certainly suggest that as Deputy Director he would be in a position to skew the census to support Republican incumbency, but the administration may be wondering about his potential effectiveness. The administration could expect considerable opposition to his appointment, and the way a court (in NC) accepted a challenge to his expert testimony as “unsubstantiated” brings me to wonder about his competency in the world of Washington hardball. Perhaps the administration is concerned that he’s not competent to f**k things up enough!

On the other hand, they already have a relatively noncontroversial avenue for subverting the census. In June, Wilbur Ross named two competent people to be interim Director and Deputy Director, so there will be no flak coming from the Dems on current leadership. However, the Bureau is being starved of the funds they need to be effective in the runup to the 2020 census. While people have been complaining loudly about this underfunding, it doesn’t get the kind of outrage that a Brunell appointment would bring.

Considering all the above, if I were the administration’s devil in charge of spoiling the census, I would let it die of a thousand paper cuts rather than attack it overtly. That would be my guess as to what’s happening. Next question: is there anything anyone can do!

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