Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold announced on Tuesday that the subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee that he chairs will look into a New York Post report that claimed that Census employees were tweaking jobs data. This is an object lesson in getting things done on Capitol Hill with expediency: moving from anecdote to reported malfeasance to planned congressional hearings in 12 hours.
As we noted on Monday, there are legitimate questions to be raised about the Post report. To what extent is the fictional outreach of Census employee Julius Buckmon committed part of the system? Did his supervisors encourage him to make up data as part of the agency's collection process used to evaluate jobs numbers? Why didn't the Census Bureau investigate the reports when they first emerged?
Two things about the report seem certain. The first is that Buckmon's reported fabrications probably didn't effect the bottom-line employment numbers very much. In order to generate the monthly percentage of unemployed, the government calls 60,000 households. Manufacturing, say, 500 fake responses in one direction or the other could theoretically have moved the bottom-line number by 0.8 percent, a significant amount. But if it was a more manageable 60? That shifts the number 0.1 percent. And that relies on all 60 of the calls providing the same information. If you had 120 fake interviews showing people got jobs to 100 that didn't, the effect is tiny — 0.03 percent. Buckmon says he wasn't told to fabricate the data one way or the other.
Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers— Jack Welch (@jack_welch) October 5, 2012
The second thing that's clear is that Buckmon's actions are not why the unemployment figure dropped 0.3 percent last September. Buckmon's fraud ended at the latest with his departure in 2011 and, as we noted on Monday, the Post's John Crudele — who also writes "I’ve been suspicious of the Census Bureau for a long time" — has only an anonymous source who claims that it is ongoing. The September 2012 numbers, you'll recall, were questioned by former GE CEO Jack Welch on Twitter, inspiring a ferocious debate over whether or not the Obama administration was cooking the books. But there's no indication that the system Buckmon describes was in place and motivated to boost Obama's chances — especially since the number went back up shortly before Election Day.
Which brings us back to Blake Farenthold. The Post story served as an adrenaline shot to the heart of a moribund conspiracy theory — one that the media was happy to embrace. "The House Oversight Committee is vowing to thoroughly investigate a report that unemployment data was falsified months before the 2012 presidential election," The Hill reports — the "months" at hand being about 24. The Guardian teases its story with "employee Julius Buckmon was caught faking results to make unemployment rate appear lower," which is inaccurate. The Daily Mail builds an indictment: "There has been a history of Census Bureau employees inflating the numbers," "New revelations allege that could have happened in September 2012," "Said to have helped President Obama get re-elected." It's a good enough story without blowing on the coals.
So, from the media's HTML to Farenthold's ear. The Hill:
Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) told The Hill Tuesday that the Oversight panel plans to probe the findings, which he called “extremely serious.”
“The allegation that data gathered by the Census Bureau is being manipulated for any reason is extremely serious. The Oversight Committee has jurisdiction over the Census Bureau and will be thoroughly investigating these claims,” he said in a statement.
This isn't a surprise. Oversight's M.O. Of late has been to seize upon and dissect each of the alleged scandals in the Obama administration: the IRS categorizations of the Tea Party, Healthcare.gov, the NSA surveillance. Oversight committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa has been particularly adamant about the IRS issues, calling witness after witness and trickling pejorative information to the press as he sees fit. After months of investigation, the scandal appears less significant than it did at first, not more.
This Census malfeasance fits nicely into that pattern: bad behavior supporting a long-standing conspiracy theory is reported and quickly becomes a priority for the United States Congress. An investigation is warranted. But whether or not it will conclude if no evidence of widespread problems are found is another question entirely.
Correction: We've updated the date on which Buckmon was fired from 2010 to 2011.