Political appointments within bureaucracy are usually not headline worthy- unless they are controversial in nature. Former U.S. president Donald Trump appointed a litany of controversial figures to senior positions, creating a storm of criticism; perhaps for just reason.
To expand upon Huq’s argument that constitutional retrogression can look like undermining bureaucratic autonomy through the centralization and politicization of executive power, I argue that this undermining can take the form of political appointments to senior positions within government agencies. This leaves democracies subject to democratic erosion because these agencies are subject to political plays, preventing them from fulfilling their duties to their fullest capacity. There are two possible consequences: one, artificially reduced political competition in elections, which compromises the fairness of elections; and two, since bureaucracies cannot complete their duties, the people are needlessly hurt.
Amid the initial chaos of the pandemic, the decennial census loomed. In January, business ran as usual, but when the Trump administration declared coronavirus a national emergency in March, the country effectively shut down. The administration was constitutionally bound to continue the 2020 census. Trump claimed that to ensure the 2020 census data was to proper standards, he had to appoint two new individuals to brand new positions within the Census Bureau, in addition to the director he appointed in 2019. However, criticism from current and former career employees for the Census Bureau pointed out how odd such political appointments were in the middle of the census cycle. Statisticians, demographers, and economists questioned the new appointees’ qualifications for such new yet senior level positions. Given the gravity of these concerns, what happened during the census?
In January of 2022, a memo written by senior bureau officials and released from the Brennan Center’s lawsuit against the Department of Commerce reveals political interference of the census on behalf of Trump’s political appointees. Officials expressed grave concern over the appointees’ meddling, which looked like the invasion of “…privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to produce population totals quickly and political pressure on a crash program that was seeking to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.” The majority of these efforts affected data used for apportionment of House representatives.
It appears Trump’s political desires were influential in the appointees’ actions in multiple ways. Firstly, Trump had ordered a count of illegal immigrants in a July 2020 memo. In Trump’s memo, he wanted to use the count to subtract them from the total House apportionment population data, which would advantage Republicans. The appointees pushed career employees to supply the data to Trump before Trump left office, going as far as to offer cash bonuses to those who could do it. The officials emphasize how this request was unprecedented and peculiar. Secondly, the appointees had also been interested in methodology used to find the population data needed to draw political maps and estimates of the number of citizens eligible to vote; Trump wanted to give this information to states so that the states could use it to draw the political maps, which would have increased Republican representation in the House. Finally, in August 2020, Trump ordered the census to be cut short (to end on September 30, from the originally agreed upon October 31) and wanted the census data on his desk by December 31, much to the horror of bureau employees; consequently, the appointees pressured career officials to trade statistical accuracy and population estimates in favor of rushing their work in order to get the data to Trump before he left office.
Since the bureau was able to resist the relatively more significant instances of meddling, Trump left office without the census data or the illegal immigrant count, which prevented his administration from reapportioning the seats to the Republican party’s advantage. Though these things did not happen, the attempt at politicizing a nonpolitical agency is a threat to democracy; officials at the bureau expressed grave concerns over the appointee’s actions, whistleblowers came forward to members of Congress and the media, lawsuits were filed, and pushback within Congress and activists shows that many resources had to be poured into this effort to protect the integrity of the census. If Trump had been able to manipulate census data, then districts might have been reapportioned to unfairly favor the Republican party, which would have compromised the democratic institution of free and fair elections. When fair elections start to become less fair, democracy starts to erode since the will of all the people is purposefully not being represented.
Unfortunately, the meddling did not happen in a vacuum; since the census ended on September 30, the nonresponse follow-up phase that was supposed to begin in August and continue through October was cut short. Many people who require follow-ups come from minority communities that historically have supported the Democratic party. This means that these communities, which are comparatively underserved and underrepresented by the government, will not receive the full amount of funding for certain government programs they depend on.
The attempted politicization of the U.S. Census Bureau is a threat that Kenneth Prewitt, a public affairs scholar at Columbia University and former director of the Census Bureau, says needs to be addressed. “The officials’ objections…only underscored the need for legislation to shield the Census Bureau from political interference well before the 2030 census gets underway. “I’m very worried about that,”.