Funny numbers and Clinton census plans

June 14, 1998|By George F. Will

ON JULY 11, 1787, the Constitutional Convention discussed what would become the requirement of a census by "actual enumeration" every 10 years, to revise the allocation of congressional seats among the states. The convention made this the national government's responsibility because, said Edmund Randolph, the states would be too "interested" to be impartial. The convention made it mandatory because, said George Mason, "those who have power in their hands will not give it up while they can retain it."

In that July 11 discussion, James Madison said there should be a constitutional limit on discretion in the conduct of a Census because "all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree," given "the political depravity of man." Speaking of which, President Clinton has found yet another law to disregard, this time a provision in the Constitution.

Virtual census

For the 2000 Census he wants to disregard the Framers' stipulation of an "actual enumeration" -- actually locating actual people. Instead, he wants the census to be an enumeration supplemented by statistical "sampling," which means by more or less sophisticated guesses.

The 1990 enumeration -- mailed questionnaires, supplemented by door-to-door interviews -- undercounted an estimated 4 million Americans, 1.6 percent of an increasingly large and mobile population. Democrats, who assume that most of the undercounted were poor or otherwise "marginalized" and therefore, prospective Democratic votes, propose for 2000 a census that would enumerate 90 percent of the population (down from 98.4 in 1990). The rest would be estimated by complex extrapolations from a survey of 750,000 households (0.75 percent of all households).

The central problem is the political temptations in sampling: Political objectives can shape the assumptions that must be made to frame any formula for making the final extrapolation. Politics can govern the selection of the final 750,000 households that are surveyed, and of the surveyors.

No census is going to be completely accurate. In enumeration, some people will not be found -- indeed, some will not want to be found. In sampling, notes David Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, accuracy is a function of inherently imprecise processes of "estimation, imputation and probability." So, Mr. Murray says, the quest for accuracy must involve one of two risks -- an undercount or a "fuzzy count" from sampling.

The assessment of what risks are worth running for improved accuracy occurs in the context of the Clinton administration's contempt for law. Mr. Murray sees the birth of a powerful political temptation: "The ability to 'create' or 'eliminate' millions of strategically placed citizens with the stroke of a pen introduces a potent and disturbing new political weapon."

No administration, and certainly not this one, should wield such a pen. Michael Barone, author of the "Almanac of American Politics," notes: "This is a White House that had no scruples about getting the Immigration and Naturalization Service to drop criminal checks on applicants for citizenship so that more Democrats could be naturalized in time for the 1996 election; why would it suddenly develop scruples about adjusting Census numbers for political purposes?"

Clintonian sins

Why expect that? Mr. Clinton has written a remarkable record of lawlessness, of three sorts.

One sort arises from his glandular life. A second arises from his lust for money to finance his life's work, which is campaigning. The third sort, the most serious, involves constitutional damage. It is contemptuous disregard for clear laws governing institutional relations. Three examples:

Mr. Clinton could not win Senate confirmation for Bill Lann Lee as assistant attorney general for civil rights, so he has Mr. Lee exercising power illegally as "acting" holder of that office. Mr. Clinton will not submit for Senate ratification the Kyoto Treaty, which would make America pay for global warming. Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat, calls this exercise in American masochism "the most asinine treaty I've ever seen." The Senate dismissed it in advance with a 95-0 resolution of disdain. Nevertheless, Mr. Clinton proposes to go on to negotiating expansions of the treaty.

In a third derogation of the Senate's right to advise and consent, Mr. Clinton, without seeking Senate approval, has extended the scope and changed the substance of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, a 1972 agreement with a now nonexistent entity, the Soviet Union.

He has made several independent republics from the former Soviet Union parties to the treaty. And in the guise of "interpretation," he has made the treaty applicable to theater as well as strategic systems, in a way that makes it an even larger impediment to developing ballistic missile defenses.

Mr. Clinton's proposal for census sampling -- forever severing this constitutionally mandated exercise from its anchor against politicalization -- comes in the context of Mr. Clinton's lawlessness. Regarding the undeniable potential for political abuse of sampling, Mr. Clinton's position is: Trust me.


George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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