by Terri Ann Lowenthal
I love the census. Unlike many things in life, it’s so… predictable.
Just like clockwork, it comes around every 10 years. Like it or not politically; controversy be damned; the U.S. Constitution requires a decennial population count, and the U.S. Supremes have sanctioned Uncle Sam’s right to gather a broad set of useful information about America as part of that drill.
And what goes around seems to come around with respect to many spokes on the census wheel. Take, for example, the way Congress views census oversight. Almost a quarter-century ago (do I know how to date myself, or what?), I became staff director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. The census had its own, clearly-marked oversight panel, befitting of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization. Four years later, that panel morphed into the Subcommittee on Census, Statistics, and Postal Personnel. Okay, the U.S. Postal Service delivers census forms and provides updated address information for the Master Address File. But overseeing postal workforce issues while trying to monitor the nation’s vast statistical system? We scrambled to conduct the thorough monitoring the 1990 census required (especially since we also were responsible for federal holidays and observances … go figure).
The Senate had a dimmer view of census importance, tucking it into a panel with responsibility for energy, nuclear proliferation and federal services back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. After Republicans claimed the House majority in 1995, the census bounced around every two years or so, between subcommittees with oversight of national security, international affairs and criminal justice, to technology (prescient, in hindsight) and health care, although it managed to regain the spotlight briefly with its own panel during the 2000 count. More recently, Senate Democrats just wanted to test our powers of memorization by creating the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security (known as FFM, for short, thank heavens).
So here we are in 2013, and House leaders have put on their interior decorating hats once again. The result: A new Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census, chaired by second-term Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) of southern Texas, which sounds a lot like my old Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. The new chairman’s biography indicates past experience as a conservative radio talk show host, lawyer and web designer. We do know Rep. Farenthold supported the amendment last year to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey (ACS). I think stakeholders will need to dig out Census 101 materials and start the education process all over again.
Appreciation for the magnitude of census challenges is likely to be higher in the new Senate, now that former FFM subcommittee chair Tom Carper (D-DE) has assumed the top post on the full committee (Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs). And fortunately (or should I say, for better or worse?), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will continue to head the appropriations subcommittees (Commerce, Justice, and Science) that hold the Census Bureau’s purse strings. At least they know the drill.
Some census issues don’t so much repeat themselves as stay suspended in constant states of flux. The questions on race, ethnicity and ancestry are the most notable examples. The Census Bureau just announced it would drop the term “Negro” (one of several terms used to describe Blacks or African Americans in previous censuses) from the race question, starting with the 2014 American Community Survey (pending comments on its Federal Register notice, due February 25.)
You might ask what took so long. But before the 1990 census, when my lovable but firm census panel chairman, Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-CA), raised a well-known eyebrow to question the reference, Census officials explained that some older Black Americans still identified with the term and that the Bureau had to reach all segments of this historically undercounted population any way it could. Rep. Dymally, also chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time, demurred. But I think few would argue with dropping the reference now.
So the census seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round (there I go, dating myself again with ancient folk song references)… no time to get off the merry-go-round and snooze with a never-ending (we hope) American Community Survey and with planning for Census 2020 census well underway.