by Terri Ann Lowenthal
I’ve been losing sleep ever since several members of Congress (including a former judge!) posited at a congressional hearing last month that the Census Bureau was overstepping constitutional bounds by requiring people to answer questions on the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS relieved the decennial census of its long-form burden after Congress urged the Census Bureau to streamline the decennial count and provide policymakers with more timely information. But more on that in a moment.
Now, I’m an advocate of informed decision-making. I think we Americans have a duty to help our nation understand its collective condition and shared future direction. But an unconstitutional government intrusion into our private lives? Not on my watch. The idea that our census agency has been violating fundamental tenants of our treasured founding blueprint since the nation … well, became a nation … has been keeping me up at night.
Fortunately, none other than “Father of the Constitution” James Madison has come to my rescue. When the House of Representatives debated the very first census bill in 1790, this founding patriarch and primary author of the Bill of Rights observed that lawmakers now had “an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country if this bill is extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community. In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community was divided, should be accurately known; on this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.” (As cited in Government Accountability Office, Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852, April 4, 2002)
I couldn’t have said it better myself (though heaven knows I’ve tried). But let me translate into 21st century English. The census gives us a chance, Madison said, to collect data that lawmakers can use to make informed decisions that meet the needs of the nation’s people and communities — decisions related, for example, to the agricultural, business, and manufacturing sectors. A range of data beyond the number of people in each household, which backers of a voluntary ACS suggest is the only constitutionally permissible purpose of the census, would ensure that Congress allocated resources based on actual conditions. Imagine that!
As for the ACS, it was Congress, starting in 1991, that not-so-gently nudged the Census Bureau to give up the traditional vehicle for collecting demographic and socio-economic information — known as the “long form” — and to continue its “embrace … of other objects” (to quote the oh-so-eloquent James M.) on a more frequent basis from a sample of households spread out across more years. Congress never suggested that the ACS would not continue to be a part of the census, perhaps knowing full well that lawmakers had tied half a trillion dollars annually in domestic program funding to the results.
Of course, Congress has been known to pass legislation that doesn’t quite pass constitutional muster. That’s why we have the Supremes, who determined in 1870 that Congress has unquestionable power to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the decennial census. (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287) It’s just what our fourth president envisioned to help the legislature, of which he was then a part, make wise decisions. Whew!
I’m sleeping better already. Sweet dreams!