July 17th, 2009

Unable to Write About Anything Except Sarah Palin, VDB Leaves It to Fred Lane To Take Down Rep. Michelle Bachman On The US Census

by Philip Baruth

We’ve been preoccupied with Palin and Mark Sanford’s tragic Love Story here at VDB, and we apologize. We’ve neglected to provide coverage of something far nuttier, and far more unsettling: the Right Wing crusade against the Census, spearheaded by one Michelle Bachman, whom some of you may recognize from her Red-baiting days in the US House. Fortunately, Burlington author and privacy expert Fred Lane deals quite brilliantly with Ms. Bachman in a post we’ve lifted in its entirety from the Beacon Press blog, the Beacon Broadside. Enjoy. — PB

Bachmann’s Anti-Census Fear-Mongering is Nothing New
By Frederick S. Lane

During questioning by Senator Al Franken (what a pleasure to finally write those words!), Judge Sonya Sotomayor noted that the U.S. Constitution is a mixture of broad principles (”due process,” “free speech,” etc.) and specific commands.

While broad principles allow room for adaptation and interpretation, the specific instructions are meant to be followed. For instance, she said, the Constitution states that an individual must be at least 30 years old in order to serve in the United States Senate. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in that provision.

Another example is contained in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution (and the 14th Amendment), which states that the members of the United States House of Representatives shall be apportioned among the various states “according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed.”

“The actual Enumeration,” the Constitution says, “shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.”

The use of the word “shall” is a pretty clear tip-off that the Framers meant what they said; the nation is required to conduct a head count each decade, and Congress is given the discretion to determine how the Census should be conducted.

Initially, under the direction of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Census takers limited themselves to just six questions, all of which were designed to count various categories of people in a given household.

Over the succeeding decades, however, Congress expanded the Census beyond a raw headcount by adding questions designed to collect a wide range of information necessary for creating and implementing public policy. The specific questions varied from decade to decade, but popular topics included levels of education, employment, property ownership, types of illness, national origin, and so on.

Not surprisingly, as the information collected by the Census expanded beyond mere enumeration, a tension arose between civic duty and personal privacy. In 1850, for instance, when Census takers began collecting information about individuals by name, the practice of posting Census results in public locations was stopped.

By the time the 10th Census rolled around in 1880, Congress was sufficiently worried about non-compliance that it established a $100 fine for individuals who refused to answer a census taker’s questions (the same fine still applies today).

At the same time, it also created a $500 fine for census takers who disclosed an individual’s private information without authorization. In addition, individual census responses are sealed for a period of 70 years; only the aggregate data is reported to Congress and the public

Despite Congress’s clear constitutional obligation to conduct a decennial census and its equally clear authority to determine how the Census will be conducted, there are still those who bridle at anything more than a nose count.

In the field, those individuals are troublesome enough, but every now and then, one gets elected Congress, where they have the potential to make real mischief.

In 1938, for instance, Charles William Tobey was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire; a staunch Republican and committed foe of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Tobey became one of the most outspoken critics of the 1940 Census. Among other things, he claimed that Roosevelt administration planned to use politically-appointed census takers to skew the results in favor of Democratic strongholds.

Tobey loudly announced that he would boycott the Census and actively urged others to do so, a stance that earned him strong criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Seventy years later, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, is channeling the spirit of the dispeptic Tobey. Bachmann is a darling of the Religious Right; her successful run in 2006 was aided by a Generation Joshua Student Action Team, one of a cadre of evangelical high school groups sent around the country to aid the election efforts of “strong pro-life, pro-family candidates.”

In 2008, however, Bachmann nearly lost her re-election bid, in no small part because of the controversy caused by her suggestion that members of Congress (and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama) should be investigated to determine their anti-American bias.