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Steve Dillingham (left), with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R–WI, right) before today’s hearing.

J. Merivs/Science

U.S. census nominee steers through political minefield at confirmation hearing

Steven Dillingham avoided controversy today in a Senate hearing on his nomination to be director of the U.S. Census Bureau. But both Democrats and Republicans on the panel tried to win his support for their stances on the political controversies swirling around the 2020 census.

Filling a job that has been vacant since John Thompson stepped down in June 2017 seems to be the priority for both parties in the runup to the decennial census. And Dillingham’s balancing act all but assures eventual confirmation for the 66-year-old political scientist, who had led two other federal statistical agencies under Republican administrations.

The biggest political minefield facing Dillingham is the current lawsuit against his future boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, for his decision to add a citizenship question to the decennial census. Opponents say the question wasn’t properly vetted and will lead to an undercount. Today, Dillingham sidestepped a direct question about his view of the question from Senator Steve Daines (R–MT), who believes it is both appropriate and essential.

“I have no plans to voice an opinion,” Dillingham answered. Once the case is resolved, he noted, “it will be my responsibility to carry out” the decision of the court, “so it would be problematic for me to take a position.”

Any other response might have shocked the chairman and the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that conducted the hearing. They had already said Dillingham should not be blamed for any aspect of the controversy.

“There is a court case on whether Secretary Ross acted properly, so I hope we can focus on whether Mr. Dillingham is qualified to lead the Census Bureau,” said Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI), the committee chairman, in his opening statement. Johnson seemed to have already made up his mind on that front, calling Dillingham “very knowledgeable and well-qualified” and “an exceptional candidate.”

Senator Claire McCaskill (D–MO) was on the same page. Speaking after the 90-minute hearing, which also featured a nominee for the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission, she said, “We need a new [census] director immediately, and I will support his nomination.”

McCaskill had been decidedly less enthusiastic about Thomas Brunell, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Dallas, whose name had been floated for the job last fall. His potential nomination evoked an outcry from the statistical community.

“I’m not going to do comparisons,” McCaskill said when asked whether Dillingham is a stronger nominee. “I think [Dillingham] has got sufficient qualifications to tackle the challenges” facing the agency.

That endorsement doesn’t mean McCaskill and other Democrats are happy about the citizenship question. McCaskill all but accused Ross of lying to the committee last year, when he said he was simply complying with a request from the Department of Justice to add the question.

“Facts have come to light indicating that [he] was not entirely truthful,” she said. “It appears to me that a political decision was made to include the question, and that they sought out Justice to ask for it.”

Senator Kamala Harris (D–CA) asked Dillingham what he would do if “a political appointee” came to him with a request to “redesign a question [on the census] … that would make it less accurate.” Dillingham was quick to label it “a theoretical question.” But he did acknowledge that such “political interference … does not sound to me as though it would be appropriate.”

Dillingham’s answer was consistent with the tone of his opening statement, in which he pledged “to support a federal statistical agency culture of … independence from improper influences.”