The census controversy brings the first test of accountability and oversight in the new administration

Rep. Darrell Issa is not working from a position of strength. As the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa wants to exercise some, well, oversight when it comes to the Obama administration’s controversial decision to transfer control of the Census Bureau from professionals at the Commerce Department to political aides in the White House. But as a member of the minority party on Capitol Hill, Issa doesn’t have the power to compel the administration to do anything.

So this week Issa wrote President Obama a tough-sounding letter, saying that placing the Census Bureau in the hands of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — the hard-edged political operative who directed the Democrats’ successful 2006 campaign to win the House — is “a shamefully transparent attempt by your administration to politicize the Census Bureau and manipulate the 2010 Census.” 
At that point, a powerful member of Congress might have made a demand, or issued a threat. Instead, Issa signed off by saying to Obama, “We respectfully request that you not follow through” on the Census Bureau change.

Good luck with that.

In the last couple of years, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee was a bulldog at the Bush administration’s heels.  Then-chairman Henry Waxman conducted investigation after investigation, on topics from the Justice Department to global warming.  Waxman was particularly fond of probing the Bush’s administration’s alleged politicization of just about every aspect of the federal government.

Now things are different. With a Democrat in the White House and Democrats running Capitol Hill, that old Waxman toughness is a thing of the past.  Waxman himself has decamped for a bigger job chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  He’s been replaced as chairman by the lower-key Rep. Edolphus Towns, who doesn’t have the reputation of being a ferocious watchdog.

And that’s where Darrell Issa comes in. “We have an administration saying there has been mismanagement and a failure of oversight by the previous administration,” Issa told me this week.  “We’re going to hold President Obama to his word.”

I asked Issa about the role of Emanuel in the census, which is used in the politically sensitive work of redrawing congressional districts across the country. “When you see something as unusual as the president taking an unconfirmed, personally appointed individual and putting them in charge of the census — that essentially means the president is putting himself directly in charge of the census,” Issa answered. "I’d like to see the maximum amount of distance from any politician of any party in this — I want statisticians and managers to ensure that a full, complete, and accurate count is made.”

That sounds good, but it’s fair to say Issa will find no support among committee Democrats. When I inquired about the matter, Towns’ office referred me to Rep. William Clay, who heads the subcommittee that oversees the census. In an e-mail note, Clay told me, “I welcome the president’s, and Rahm Emanuel’s, and the entire White House team’s involvement in the upcoming 2010 decennial census. … It’s totally preposterous to say that the census could be used as a political tool.”

The short version: You can forget it if you think the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is going to do anything about the census controversy.

So what happens now? Obama will do what he wants, with Democratic assent. But Republicans will continue to ask questions.

They will want to know how the census move came about.There were undoubtedly discussions between officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill. There were undoubtedly discussions between the White House and some outside activist groups. Between the White House and the Commerce Department. And discussions inside the Commerce Department itself, where — who knows? — some career professionals might have opposed the idea.

The results of those discussions, and possibly disagreements, were likely committed to paper and e-mail. And those papers and e-mails might answer the question of whether there was, in fact, a political motivation behind the census move. So in the interest of oversight, Issa might ask the White House and the Obama administration for documents and other evidence concerning the census change. 

But if minority Republicans are the only ones asking, the White House won’t have to answer. Which means the census flap might well be an early test for congressional Democrats. Do they believe in accountability and oversight or not?