Is the Census Recount of the Uninsured a Legitimate Scandal?

| Thu Apr. 17, 2014 10:14 AM EDT

A friend of mine thinks the decision by the Census Bureau to change the way it counts the uninsured—which will make it more difficult to make pre and post-Obamacare comparisons—is sleazier than I give it credit for:

To me this is all about 2016. I think Democrats really want to be able to show a sharp contrast that will demonstrate the dramatic impact of an attempted repeal of the ACA, and stronger numbers on the uninsured would only help the ads that much more. The administration knows that a Republican president will be under terrific pressure to undercut and thwart the law regardless of its popularity (even if with as few fingerprints as possible) and that they will use whatever tools they have to do so. So 2016 is extremely important.

The reason I lost it is because even with independent agencies, there is a certain measure of influence. No, the executive doesn't have a large measure of direct control over independent agencies, but they damn sure know what they are doing — or at least somebody does. They don't operate in a vacuum. (Except, perhaps, some of the security services.) So, this is either:

  1. Something started years ago with a drop date of Spring 2014 that (a) no one picked up on until now and no one can derail the train; or (b) the executive saw coming and was willing to let it happen to help put the best read on the numbers in advance of 2016.
  2. Something that has been out there (sure, everything is "out there") but languishing, which the executive decided to speed up and put in place well before 2016. The goal was to get the most positive read on the numbers, so they indirectly applied pressure to the Census to put it in place — and since the Census wants it anyway there's really no stick here.

Of these, (1)(a) seems most implausible (even if certainly possible) and (2) seems most likely if 2016 is the primary issue. Thus, I am assuming that this is going forward with the executive's blessing on the timing, and a calculation has been made that the blowback — if any — will be among the right's base and they are already energized so this won't change the dynamic much.

And if my assumption is correct, I still think it's a cheap / too-cute-by-half tactic that I would be calling out if the roles were flipped.

I have a hard time buying this for several reasons. First, it is too cute by half. Obama's political shop is not the runaway train that, say, Chris Christie's apparently is. It's implausible to me that anyone there would give this more than a moment's thought before dismissing it. It's just too stupid.

Second, it's not at all clear that the change made by the Census will make Obamacare look better. We're still going to have a clean 2013-14 comparison, after all, just not a longer-term one. Besides, surely any number is better than one with such a big cloud around it that it's open to merciless attack. Especially when it's one that the boffins at the Census Bureau won't defend.

Third, there are loads of other numbers about the uninsured—Gallup, Rand, HRMS, etc. Playing games with the Census numbers won't change any of that.

Bottom line: I continue to think this is most likely something dreamed up by technocrats in the Census Bureau who were oblivious to the political implications. I'll acknowledge that the political implications are obvious enough that this is a little hard to believe, but that's where Occam's Razor takes me. In any case, Darrell Issa is sure to open hearings on this, so I imagine we'll hear from Census officials soon enough.