Robert Santos, President Biden's nominee for director of the U.S. Census Bureau, is a step closer to a potential political appointment for the history books after testifying before Congress on Thursday.
If confirmed, Santos, who is Latinx and one of the country's leading statisticians, would be the first person of color to become a permanent director of the bureau. The agency produces the nation's most comprehensive public data on race, ethnicity and other demographic characteristics used to redraw voting maps, guide federal funding and enforce civil rights protections. In 1998, James F. Holmes, who is African American, temporarily headed the bureau as its acting director.
"I understand the importance of data quality and the Census Bureau's role in providing data that nurtures our democracy, informs our people and promotes our great economy," Santos told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during a confirmation hearing held about three months after the White House announced his nomination.
"Although this is a political appointment, I am no politician," Santos added. "I'm a scientist, executive-level manager, a researcher and a longtime supporter of the Census Bureau."
A need for "more transparency and independence"
Currently the American Statistical Association's president and the Urban Institute's chief methodologist, Santos would serve as the bureau's director past the current Biden administration and through the end of 2026 during a key period of preparations for the 2030 census.
The federal government's largest statistical agency found itself without a permanent director in January after the abrupt departure of Steven Dillingham. The Trump administration appointee resigned after whistleblowers filed complaints about Dillingham's attempt to rush out an incomplete data report about noncitizens.
Since then, the bureau has been led by acting Director Ron Jarmin, who has been managing other career civil servants focused on the release of the next major set of 2020 census results.
Prompted by the committee's chair, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Santos acknowledged the bureau is suffering from "morale issues" after the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's interference upended plans for the 2020 census. The nominee said there's a need for "more transparency and independence to build public trust" as the agency continues releasing 2020 census results, including new redistricting data.
Pressure to release new redistricting data
For now, the bureau remains on track to release that data by Aug. 16, according to the status update it filed this week as part of an agreement to keep on hold a federal lawsuit filed by the state of Ohio over the data's release schedule.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, pressed Santos on whether, as the bureau's director, he would commit to ensuring 2020 census redistricting data is out by then.
"I will commit to trying to meet it as much as possible," Santos replied, adding that he did not have information on the current status of the bureau's work but is "confident" that the data will be released by mid-August.
"I understand the urgency. I also understand the importance of having accurate information in order to make the critical decisions that drive our democracy," Santos said.
The bureau has been conducting quality checks on that detailed demographic data used for redistricting around the country. The information's release has been delayed by COVID-19 and Trump officials' last-minute changes to the census schedule last year. That has been putting pressure on redistricting officials and forced some state and local governments to push back upcoming primary and general election dates.
No questions on new controversial privacy protections
A federal lawsuit filed by the state of Alabama over the bureau's privacy protection plans threatened to delay the release of new redistricting data further. But a three-judge court put that legal challenge on hold this month after rejecting a request for an emergency court order that would have blocked the bureau from using a new way of keeping people's information in the data confidential.
The bureau's differential privacy plans have sparked concerns over the usability of 2020 census data about small geographic areas and minority groups within communities. But none of the Senate committee members' questions during Thursday's hearing touched on the topic, which may resurface in the courts after next month's data release.
Santos did pledge to Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., that, if confirmed, he would support combining the separate race and Hispanic origin questions into one on census forms, as recommended by the bureau's researchers as a way to collect more accurate demographic data about Latinos.
A proposal by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., that would allow people to respond to the once-a-decade census when filing their federal income taxes, Santos said, was "worthy of consideration."
A brother's sacrifice paved the way for "helping people"
Santos also emphasized how growing up in a Mexican American, Gold Star family living in the barrios of San Antonio shaped a lifelong commitment to public service.
Taking an emotional pause while testifying, Santos shared "a pain that endures to this day" from the loss of his brother, U.S. Army Spc. Rene Santos, who died in 1969 while serving in the Vietnam War. His brother's sacrifice, Santos said, provided him a deferment from the military draft that he "did not seek" and allowed him to follow his "dual passions of statistics and helping people."
"Those opportunities that I had allowed me to believe that I should pay it forward, and I try to do that every day of my life," Santos said. "And if confirmed, it will be time to serve my country."