Making Politics Count


September 15, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

Washington -- Black, Hispanic, homeless and other under-represented Americans are going to be more under-represented once last year's census has its full impact on congressional and legislative redistricting and the parceling out of federal funds. It doesn't have to be that way, but that's how the Bush administration wants it.

Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher does not deny that the census missed some 5.3 million people. But he refused in July to adjust official figures to make up for the undercount, which is highest in big Democratic cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Washington. He said that boosting the count for some places would mean cutting it for others, and he did not want to break the long tradition of going strictly by the individual tally.

He made that decision against the advice of the census director, Barbara Everitt Bryant, who said, "not adjusting would be denying that these 5 million persons exist. That denial would be a greater inaccuracy than any inaccuracies that adjustment may introduce." One of Mr. Mosbacher's undersecretaries said two-thirds of citizens live in jurisdictions where the count would be made more accurate by adjustment.

Mr. Mosbacher's ruling means minorities will be crowded into fewer redrawn congressional districts, which probably means a net loss for Democrats in next year's election. The states that need federal funds most will be shortchanged. A long list of states, cities and groups challenged the secretary in court, but so far his decision stands.

But the undercount is not only a factor in federal-state relations, it directly affects intrastate politics as well. Legislative and city council districts are based on population, and state funds to subdivisions are based on the census count. In Maryland, for example, the undercount made Montgomery County instead of Baltimore officially the state's largest jurisdiction.

Thus some states, led by California, decided to base their internal revisions on the adjusted census count, regardless of what the administration did at the federal level. The California Assembly maintained that it had a right to the adjusted figures under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. Mosbacher didn't want that, either. Although two federal courts ruled that the Census Bureau should give California the adjusted figures, the administration resisted. Last week, a Supreme Court dominated by Reagan and Bush appointees voted 6-3 to allow Commerce to keep the figures secret until a later appeals court hearing.

That wiped out California's chance of getting the data in time for its redistricting deadline on Friday. Thus any possibility that more than a million uncounted Californians would help Democrats tighten their control of the legislature was killed, or at least put off for another two years.

The very first article of the U.S. Constitution said House members should be apportioned among the states "according to their respective numbers." It provided for the "actual enumeration" of the population each 10 years, beginning in 1790. Mr. Mosbacher might have pointed to that "actual enumeration" language if he had based his decision on strictly legal grounds.

But the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, specified that representatives must be allotted "according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed."

This clause was aimed at ending the original provision that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person, but it is clearly pertinent to today's controversy. In effect, not adjusting the 1990 census to include the many blacks, Hispanics and other minorities who were missed means the citizens of those states and cities count as only fractions.

But, of course, the secretary of Commerce did not make his decision on legal, constitutional grounds. Neither did he base his position on scientific, statistical grounds, as the census director did.

Mr. Mosbacher is expected to leave Commerce shortly to become chairman of the 1992 Bush for President campaign.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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