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Keep clear of census End White House bid for control, keep Commerce Department in charge

The police report on the latest smash up in the Obama Cabinet garage would list the cause as "oversteering."

That's what happens when a driver, alarmed that he is in danger of running off the right side of the road, tries to compensate by turning violently to the left. Mayhem ensues.

But anything that poses a threat to the integrity of the Census of the United States cannot be treated as a mere fender-bender. Rather than allow Democrats and Republicans to fight over control of that constitutional mandate, the answer is to send the census back to the deep innards of the Commerce Department, to the realm of bean-counters and IT nerds, where it belongs.

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama nominated Judd Gregg, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, as the new secretary of commerce. It was another of Obama's gestures toward bipartisanship. And that was the turn to the right.

But, because the Commerce Department is the bureaucratic home of the census, and because Gregg, as a senator, had a long record of trying to cut the funding and, critics charged, the accuracy of census operations, not a few Democrats feared that the process would be politicized.

Some Democrats openly worried that a Gregg-run census would sloppily, or even deliberately, undercount the populations that are hard to quantify anyway. That would mean they would miss significant numbers of the poor, minorities, students, the homeless, prison inmates and hospital patients. Such undercounts would be reflected not only in the way congressional, state legislative and city council districts would be drawn, further depriving those already powerless populations of important influence, but also would cut back on the amount of federal aid that is also distributed based on census numbers.

Not to worry, was the reply from the White House. Gregg won't be running the census on his own. In fact, came the word, the census will be reporting directly to the White House, perhaps even to highly partisan White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, as a way of ensuring that the numbers come out right. That was the overcorrection to the left.

It was also enough to convince Gregg that, with that little confidence in his ability to run the census combined with his opposition to the Obama stimulus package, and some GOP pressure thrown in, he should hang on to his Senate seat after all.

This is a good opportunity for Obama to end this struggle over which party will control the census and make it clear that neither of them will.

Picking a commerce secretary with some credentials as a wonk -- a scandal-free governor, perhaps, or an academic with some administrative experience along the lines of Energy Secretary Steven Chu -- would help.

The Constitution calls for a full and honest head-count of everyone who lives here. Obama -- and the Republicans -- owe us no less.

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