New Year’s Worries

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Now that the holidays have come and gone, I have a lot on my mind in the new year. The next census will start in eight years; the dress rehearsal is only six years away; local governments will start reviewing address lists in five years, when the Census Bureau, by law, must submit 2020 Census topics to Congress … oh my, where has the time gone?

And the fun really never stops. In a few weeks, the president will send his Fiscal Year 2013 budget to Congress; legislators will declare the proposal dead-on-arrival, retreat to their partisan corners of the ring for nine months, and fail to pass their own version of a spending plan before the fiscal year actually starts on October 1.

Oh sure, they’ll take a stab at passing funding bills. For the last two fiscal years, and at the eleventh hour, Congress dipped into the Census Bureau’s once-obscure Working Capital Fund (WCF) to meet reduced budget targets for the appropriations account covering commerce, justice and science programs, which includes the Census Bureau. In the uncertain world that is Congress, two years a trend does make. This has me very worried.

Historically, the Census Bureau has been a sitting duck for appropriators in the early years of a decade. With decennial census fatigue setting in when a year ending in “1” rolls around, lawmakers seem to catch a collective case of indifference, helping themselves to significant chunks of the agency’s budget in order to meet tight federal spending limits and pay for other favored programs.

Once Congress discovers a large pot of money not on the radar of letter-writing, phone-calling constituents, it is likely to go to that well as many times as it can plausibly defend. Generally, that means until The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post editors point out how ludicrous the budget cut is. That’s what happened with the inconspicuous Economic Census, which might have been cancelled after House appropriators slashed the Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request by a quarter. (A 11/16/11 Huffington Post headline trumpeted, “Census Budget Cuts Eliminate Data on Job Creators.” A bit of an embarrassment for lawmakers in a recession marked by high unemployment.) Then Congress finds another way to reduce spending that turns out to be so difficult to explain, the funding bill is law before anyone has a chance to wrap their head around the consequences.

And regrettably, those consequences are not entirely clear at first blush. Census stakeholders from businesses, to advocates for the poor, to local governments can easily explain how a loss of reliable data hampers their ability to understand the communities they serve and allocate their fiscal and human resources prudently. (The real challenge is getting anyone in Congress to listen.) But the bureau’s Working Capital Fund, which (as GAO explains in a recent report, GAO-12-56) is a form of that exciting financing mechanism, an intergovernmental revolving fund? Not so much.

Cutting the WCF gives Congress some cover; it can say it didn’t take funds from important data collection programs, such as the American Community Survey (ACS), or research activities, such as testing an Internet response option for the 2020 count. But is that really the case? You can only cut shared overhead costs and capital investments so much before the foundation gets shaky and the building starts to crumble. Updated computers and enhanced security systems (for an agency with data privacy at its core)? They might sound like luxuries in today’s fiscal climate, but a business can only go so long without investing in operating improvements. Rent to GSA? The bureau’s National Processing Center in Jeffersonville, Indiana? Can’t do without a roof over your head and someone to tabulate all of that information you collect. So how to make up for the WCF losses of $55 million in FY11 and $50 million in FY12? Census Bureau program managers will have to tighten their belts once again, shedding activities that arguably fall lower on the priority list. Do you miss the beloved Statistical Abstract yet? Well, hang on to your statistical seats; more surveys, research and data products inevitably could fall by the wayside if the trend of cutting funds for essential shared services continues.

One more thing that’s bothering me about this new chapter in census budget-raiding history: Lawmakers who have a bone to pick with the Census Bureau could prune the Working Capital Fund to make a political point, without so obviously putting a specific program beloved by stakeholders at risk. Maybe a senator is unhappy with a staff appointment, or the population number for their state, or their inability to access a data set to which they aren’t entitled? I’m just saying.

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