President Obama has decided to bring the U.S. Census Bureau under White House jurisdiction, a move that incensed House Republicans, who fired off a blistering letter to him Thursday, calling it "outrageous and unprecedented" and a "blatant partisan and political maneuver."
The move would shift the chain of command with the bureau and the Commerce Department, where the bureau currently resides. It comes after the Congressional Black Caucus, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and other groups expressed displeasure with Obama's nominee for Commerce secretary, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Gregg, the groups said this week, opposed efforts to secure emergency funding for the 2000 Census, which they asserted exposes a potential lack of commitment to ensuring that hard-to-reach minority populations are properly accounted for in the 2010 census.
A White House spokesman confirmed Thursday that Obama plans to work closely with the bureau, which will remain within the Commerce Department.
"From the first days of the transition the census has been a priority for the president, and a process he wanted to re-evaluate," the spokesman said in a prepared statement.
"There is historic precedent for the director of the census, who works for the Commerce secretary and the president, to work closely with White House senior management -- given the number of decisions that will have to be put before the president," he said. "We plan to return to that model in this administration."
House Republicans reacted quickly. House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Oversight and Government Reform Census Subcommittee ranking member Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., seized on speculation that the move would place the yet-unnamed Census Bureau director under the watchful eye of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, instead of leaving Gregg in charge.
They suggested the move could improperly influence legislative redistricting, which is shaped by Census counts.
"By circumventing the secretary of Commerce's oversight of the Census Bureau and handing it directly to a political operative such as Mr. Emanuel, you are severely jeopardizing the fairness and accuracy of the 2010 Census," Issa and McHenry wrote Obama.
Details of the day-to-day relationship between the White House and the Census Bureau seem hazy.
Aides speculated Thursday that the bureau's budget and public-affairs functions may be routed through OMB, an arrangement that would assuage the fears expressed by advocates concerned that the Census director's public statements and congressional testimony would be subject to censorship by less-than-supportive leadership at Commerce.
Sources on both sides of the issue said black lawmakers and others interested in securing more funding for the 2010 Census had been hoping for assurances of support from Obama as soon as they learned about Gregg's possible selection to Commerce post.
One Democratic aide close to the matter called the administration's decision a direct response to the grievances of minority groups upset with Gregg's appointment.
"People started yelling at them," said the aide, who added that the details of how the White House's interactions with the Census director remain woefully undefined.
"Their answer was 'OK, fine, [Gregg] won't be in charge,'" the aide said. "It wasn't a plan. It was a reaction."
The administration's idea to shift jurisdiction over the Census Bureau was not entirely new.
In September, congressional Democrats, led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., proposed legislation to make the bureau an independent federal agency. Such agencies report directly to the president, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency did before it became part of the Homeland Security Department.
A Census Bureau spokeswoman declined to comment on any organizational changes until a director is in place.