by Terri Ann Lowenthal
In my last blog post, I lamented a looming “collision” as U.S. House appropriators kept driving the wrong way – downhill and backwards – on the up ramp to the 2020 census, slashing the Census Bureau’s FY2014 budget request by $120+ million, which would leave the agency with $44.5 million less than its inadequate FY2013 budget. Without early investment in census research, testing and development, Congress could be spending a fortune to pull the 2020 headcount out of a ditch in a few short years.
Fortunately, the Senate has dispatched the highway patrol!
Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill (S. 1329), allocating the full amount the Obama Administration requested for the Census Bureau: $982.5 million. Sure, the committee once again dipped into the agency’s Working Capital Fund to get to that level, but the $10 million grab is small compared to previous raids on the WCF, and I will not look a gift horse in the mouth today. (See my Feb. 27, 2012, post for a quick tutorial on the WCF.)
I think Senate lawmakers are starting to grasp the long-range picture. The committee’s explanatory report (Senate Rpt. 113-78) says the budget request “suggests that the Census Bureau intends to reduce the 2020 Census costs to 2010 Census levels by finding ways to reduce door-to-door operations, using the Internet to solicit responses, and using scalable technology, such as elastic agency-wide IT systems that can expand for the 2020 Census and then return to normal operations tempo.” The committee wistfully mentions the possibility of spending less than the 2000 census, without adjusting for inflation, but we can forgive this momentary lapse in sanity, although it clearly yearns for yesteryear with later references to spending “less than the 2010 census” in 2020. Nevertheless, Senators seem to understand that the bureau can’t get from point A to point B, and accomplish the significant reforms Congress is seeking, without an investment in the groundwork that needs to be done.
House appropriators, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it, too. Their $153.5 million allocation for 2020 Census planning — $91 million below the president’s request — “underscores the Committee’s views that research and testing efforts are vital to ensuring that the 2020 Census is the most accurate and cost effective decennial yet.” We just don’t want to pay for those efforts. The committee asked for a schedule of all work “critical to the success of the 2020 Decennial Census,” including the cost of each activity “to better account for the cost effects of possible schedule slippage.” And then we’ll take you to task for falling behind schedule, even though we haven’t given you enough money to stay on track. The funding chiefs also want the agency to create shared and reusable IT services (“as a way to economize”!), continue developing a mobile computing infrastructure, implement a comprehensive information security program in accordance with in-depth GAO recommendations, and consult with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to ensure compliance with security standards. And please figure out how to do all of this vital work even though we cut your requested budget by nearly 40 percent. If the House has its way, Congress is going to need a super-size tow truck! (The House Commerce funding bill allocates $225 million for the American Community Survey — the most cost effective test-bed available for the 2020 census — $17 million less than the administration’s request.)
Will lawmakers beat the fiscal year clock to enact a final Commerce spending bill by midnight on September 30? Let’s consider: the House will be in session 17 more days until the FY2013 coach turns into a pumpkin; the Senate will be in session 26 days. Ummm… I think I see a temporary spending resolution in my crystal ball, which could leave the Census Bureau spinning its wheels in a ditch for a while longer (at the paltry current year funding levels), while the House and Senate try to come to grips collectively with the concept of ramping up for the nation’s largest peacetime undertaking.
Note: The House FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill and report numbers are not available as of this writing, but both documents are available on the House Appropriations Committee website.