Raiding The Census Piggy Bank

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

With the smell of turkey and sweet potato pie in the air, Congress finally approved funding for the U.S. Census Bureau for the fiscal year that started seven weeks earlier. The so-called “mini-bus” appropriations bill — encompassing three of 12 federal appropriations accounts — allocates $943 million for the nation’s largest number-crunching agency (H. Rpt. 112-284).

Well, sort of. The bureau actually will receive $888 million in direct appropriations. Congress decided to dip into the little-known Working Capital Fund (WCF) for the remaining $55 million the Census Bureau needs to pull off the 2012 Economic Census, albeit a scaled-down version. More on that in a moment.

Not familiar with the WCF? For starters, it’s not really a fund. Rather, it’s a revolving account that is used to manage many of the Census Bureau’s core functions. Half of the account represents money from other federal agencies for reimbursable work, such as surveys. In other words, it’s not the Census Bureau’s money. The other half pays for what can loosely be termed “overhead” — that is, basic but essential operations that support all programs. Things like IT systems; the budget, human resources and communications offices; and salaries for the director and other managerial staff.

Appropriators decided that the Census Bureau could spare $55 million from this pot of money, so they wouldn’t have to find more discretionary funding to pay for essential census and survey activities. Last year, Congress permanently torpedoed $50 million of the WCF and pretended it had reduced federal spending by that much. Does anyone else detect a pattern here?

I worked in Congress for 14 years. It is with utmost respect for those who toil in legislative obscurity that I say, “People, the Working Capital Fund is not an appropriator’s piggy bank.” Yes, I am aware of the new Government Accountability Office report (GAO-12-56) suggesting that the Census Bureau allow more sun to shine on the WCF and establish operational performance measures to promote efficiencies. The congressional auditors also noted that dramatic fluctuations in spending on the decennial census require the bureau to save money in the WCF for a rainy day through an operating reserve. Which is now $50 million smaller.

But really, what part of its overhead should the Census Bureau sacrifice to come up with this large sum? The communications office annual budget is less than half that amount. Shut down its congressional liaison activities? Ditch the press releases that inform the media and stakeholders about data products? Congress doesn’t seem to grasp the connection between Census Bureau data and the myriad policy decisions the public and private sectors make on a daily basis, so why bother? Cut back on protecting confidential information from 40,000 daily cyber attacks? Better yet, why not shut down the website entirely, thereby negating the expense of maintaining an Internet presence and defending against hackers — a sort of two-for-one reduction?

Frankly, given the country’s dire economic straits, I think we need to be really creative. Why don’t we furlough the entire senior Census Bureau staff (including the director), and then bring them all back in five years so Congress can blame the agency for not trying hard enough to design a simplified, less costly 2020 Census. Speaking of which…

Have I mentioned that Senate appropriators smartly challenged the Census Bureau to take the 2020 census for the same amount of money it spent on Census 2000, without adjusting for inflation? I’m all for saving money. The Census Bureau must bring the per-household cost of the decennial enumeration under control. In fact, the census director took the unusual step of announcing the closure of half of the bureau’s 12 regional offices, without a nudge from Congress, in a preemptive move to bring costs down.

But to go from spending $13 billion (in current dollars) to take the 2010 census, to counting 10 percent more people for a third of that amount eight years from now? I’m not feeling it yet.

But I digress. Things could be worse for the Census Bureau. It could be languishing under a temporary spending measure (the insufferable Continuing Resolution) with the many agencies that couldn’t get on board a little bus to 2012 funding certainty. House appropriators proposed cutting 21 percent from the bureau’s budget request, potentially dooming the quinquennial detailed measurement of the nation’s economic activity. Cooler congressional heads prevailed in the final hour, offering enough money to proceed with core Economic Census functions. But the Survey of Business Owners is on the chopping block — the only source of data on business ownership by people of color, women and (yes!) veterans.

As for the rest of the bureau’s programs, I suspect managers spent the holiday weekend scouring their budgets for additional expendable activities. The agency can’t cut $55 million from overhead and function effectively, so programs such as 2010 census evaluations and data products, 2020 census planning, the American Community Survey, and other periodic functions must absorb some of the pain.

The real problem is that, in order to yield savings anywhere near the magnitude of those money-green sugarplums dancing in lawmakers’ heads, the Census Bureau must invest modest but consistent resources now to research and test forward-looking methods that will expand response options for increasingly complex household structures. Cutting the agency’s budget to the bare bones won’t generate the level of scientific foresight necessary to tackle the depth of challenges inevitable in a society as culturally, ethnically and politically diverse as ours.

Memo to Census Director Robert Groves: Hold on tight to that piggy bank next year!