The Constitution won a major victory this week when a three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the Census Bureau can't use statistical sampling to count Americans in 2000. The Founders included a requirement for an "actual enumeration" in the supreme law of the land, and the judges said the Constitution means what it says.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration doesn't appear willing to accept defeat. It appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. And the Census Bureau insists on forging through the roadblocks, preparing to use sampling even though it is now illegal and will remain so at least until the high court rules. Incredibly, this issue could end up bringing the government to a partial halt. Republicans are prepared to pass an appropriations bill that would ban sampling, and Clinton may veto it.We have no quarrel with the science of statistical sampling. It is a proven way to accurately take stock of large numbers. What we quarrel with is its use by politicians in a matter as vital as the apportionment of congressional districts. Official pressures could come to bear on decisions as to which districts should be counted with sampling and which should not. Americans have suffered through the military base closure fiasco, the administration's pressure to make citizens out of potential Democrats who never had never undergone required FBI checks and a host of other recent incidents that ought to make them wary of politicizing the census.

Democrats say the GOP ought to show it is prepared to pay the enormous cost of conducting an accurate door-to-door count. That may be true. It also may be true that the underlying reasons for this fight are political on both sides. Democrats want more congressional representation and Republicans are trying to prevent it.

But that is precisely why it's best to rely on the wording of the Constitution. Yes, census counters may have missed millions of people in 1990, including some ethnic minorities. But the census cannot subject itself to political pressures, and the president should think twice before vetoing an appropriations bill in the name of a cause that has been rendered illegal.