'They basically swallowed hard': Trumpy Census Bureau hires revive fears of political meddling

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'They basically swallowed hard': Trumpy Census Bureau hires revive fears of political meddling

On Tuesday, Dillingham issued a statement announcing that Cogley and Korzeniewski were joining the agency. He praised Cogley’s “distinguished academic background” and said that Korzeniewski had “exemplary military and public service experience, including prior Census Bureau fieldwork.” He also said that “the support of Dr. Cogley and Mr. Korzeniewski will help the Census Bureau achieve a complete and accurate 2020 Census and study future improvements.”

But inside the Census Bureau, a technocratic agency long accustomed to carrying out its work without political meddling, the hires were viewed with suspicion. Not only had they occurred while the 2020 census was already well underway, officials didn’t view them as particularly qualified for their new positions. The fact that the White House had installed them only raised further alarms.

“No one has expressed any support for the decision” at the bureau for the decision to hire the two new appointees, according to the Census Bureau official. “There’s great concern.”

“They basically swallowed hard,” a person close to the bureau said. “They have no choice, and they must do it.”

Prior to Monday’s notification, the Commerce Department, which houses the Census Bureau, and the White House had held zero discussions with both Dillingham, a Trump appointee, and Jarmin about the prospect of those people joining the bureau and they had no input into their placement into the agency, according to the three people familiar with the matter. Senior Census officials also weren’t told of the hires by the deputy White House liaison at the Commerce Department, Anthony LaBruna, who deals with political appointees, until after it was a done deal.

LaBruna pushed back on the notion that Census officials weren’t told about the hires in advance, but he did not dispute the claim that the White House had chosen them.

“The notion that Census wasn’t provided a heads up is simply inaccurate,” LaBruna said in a text message. “Senior Census officials were given advance notice by the Department of Commerce about the hiring of Nathaniel Cogley and Adam Korzeniewski. Not only was Census notified but Director Dillingham put out a statement announcing that Nathaniel and Adam were joining his staff.”

But to Census officials, the arrival of the two political hires came as a shock. Even though Cogley and Korzeniewski started early last week, their titles didn’t come with the usual defined job descriptions — and Korzeniewski’s paperwork hasn’t even been given to senior Census leadership yet. Potential responsibilities under discussion for the two include working on census assessments, potential improvements for the census, strategic planning and planning the 2030 census, and working to implement the 2018 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. Jarmin is not expected to lose any of his responsibilities.

After being informed that they were coming on board, the two top Census officials decided to notify the senior Census Bureau staff last Tuesday morning and then made an announcement for employees that was later in the day posted on the website. There was also a notification to Capitol Hill, where Democrats have complained about the move.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, ripped the hires as “starkly partisan.”

“The decision to create two new senior positions at the Census Bureau and fill them with political operatives is yet another unprecedented attempt by the Trump administration to politicize the 2020 Census,” Maloney said in a statement.

Both Cogley and Korzeniewski had worked since April in Kelley’s office at the Department of Commerce, where Cogley was a senior adviser and Korzeniewski was an adviser. Kelley didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The appointment of Cogley, in particular, was met with deep skepticism inside the Census Bureau.

During meetings and briefing calls in his previous role, he had raised some questions about how the census was conducted — a delicate subject given that small changes in methodology could lead to dramatic swings in numbers. Everything from congressional redistricting to the apportionment of certain federal programs relies on the figures, lending what might otherwise seem like wonkish data collection questions vast political weight.

That’s why, the official said, when political appointees begin asking questions about changing the methodology, “some people get nervous.”

For instance, there are ongoing discussions about how vigorously the Census Bureau must try to reach people who haven’t responded to the census questionnaire. That follow-up, which begins August 11, can mean making as many as 16 attempts to reach someone at their suspected residence. Minority groups, especially Black Americans, have historically been underrepresented in census data; for various reasons, they have traditionally been harder to reach.

“If you change methodologies, it should be evidence-based and it’s unlikely, in my opinion, that we’re going to find a need for significant changes in methodology at this point in time,” said the official. “This has been planned for about 10 years and it’s based on research.”

Cogley’s new job, as the deputy director for policy, also raised internal eyebrows; in recent decades, there hasn’t been a political appointee who was put in at such a senior level.

Career employees at the bureau have “strong concerns” about the new hires, the official said, because they don’t know why they were placed at the agency and Census officials don’t know who pushed them to be hired.

“At this point in the census cycle, it’s disturbing that these two positions would be created, and it gives the appearance that the administration is attempting to politicize the 2020 census,” said John H. Thompson, who was director of the Census Bureau in the last few years of the Obama administration and first five months of the Trump administration. “If the career people at the Census Bureau were ordered to do something that was not in the best interest of getting an accurate count, they would just walk out of the building.”

A person close to the bureau said the expectation is that the two will not have any hand in direct operation of the 2020 census and no line authority. That will prevent them from telling Census employees which Americans to count, and which not to.

They are also expected to not have access to the data files that store Americans’ responses to the census or from any of the statistical surveys, which is highly restricted to a very small number of the Census Bureau’s thousands of employees.

Even though Cogley has a Ph.D., albeit in political science, not statistics, the data is highly confidential, not to mention extremely complex: It can take someone trained in the requisite quantitative methods a year to fully understand, according to the person close to the bureau.

The new hires come as the Census Bureau deals with the coronavirus pandemic, which poses a challenge as the agency seeks to keep employees in the field safe as they start to collect data in August. All of their offices are now open, and they have a fusion center that monitors how state and county reopenings are affecting Census offices. The bureau had a one-hour briefing last Friday for more than 350 congressional staffers about how the pandemic has affected its data collection.

“The biggest concern to me is the reputation of the Census Bureau as a nonpartisan non-political agency that provides information and supports the democracy and helps drive it so to the extent that additional political appointees are fabricated and inserted into a federal statistical agency you really really run the risk of damaging the reputation and it raises questions in people’s minds,” said the person close to the bureau.

Controversy at the Census Bureau is not new for the Trump administration; early in the president’s term, officials tried to add a controversial citizenship question to the Census, but courts said that official explanations for the attempted addition were implausible and legally inadequate. A GOP operative, Thomas Hofeller, who died in 2018, also played a key role in getting the Trump administration to add the citizenship question to help in his words, “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.”

A Commerce spokesperson said in a statement: “We thank Dr. Cogley and Mr. Korzeniewski for their service to our country at the Department of Commerce, and are pleased they will continue their service at the Census Bureau. As Director Dillingham stated, they will assist the great work already underway at the Bureau and help achieve a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

A White House spokesperson said the White House doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

“There are two people ill equipped to actually manage the census,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the bureau at the end of the Clinton administration. “They’re very well equipped to advance political interests, especially of the Republican Party. That’s their background and their career goals. It’s unprecedented for two political appointees to be added to the bureau in the middle of a census count in the recent history of the Census Bureau.”

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