Speaking of the Census…

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Daniel Webster is running to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Not the Daniel Webster who served in the House and the Senate and as Secretary of State. (He died in a tragic horse accident in 1852.) No, this would be the one from Florida who sponsored, in 2012, a successful amendment to eliminate the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). At least the Senate had the good sense not to go along with the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to policymaking. The House Freedom Caucus, which takes credit for pushing Speaker John Boehner to resign, is backing Rep. Webster for the job.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the Census Bureau’s activities, also wants to wield the chamber’s gavel. Rep. Chaffetz assumed his committee’s top post earlier this year, but he’s had a keen interest in the census ever since Utah failed to gain a fourth congressional district after the 2000 population count. That unfortunate outcome, the congressman believed, was due to the Census Bureau’s failure to count Mormon missionaries working abroad when the census was taken.

Rep. Chaffetz co-authored a bill in 2009 (with fellow Utah Rep. Rob Bishop) to require the inclusion of all Americans living abroad in the census. (The Census Bureau includes overseas members of the armed forces and federal employees in the state population totals used for congressional apportionment; the count is done using agency administrative records.) The bill didn’t make it out of committee, possibly because a 2004 congressionally mandated test of an overseas count was cut short after the Government Accountability Office determined that it would be impossible to get an accurate count of private American citizens abroad and that the cost was prohibitive.

Rep. Chaffetz also proposed replacing census takers with postal workers for the 2010 Census. He told the Salt Lake Tribune that there could be a “postal holiday” so that letter carriers could go door-to-door counting people who didn’t mail back their questionnaires. I think lots of households and businesses might start to rebel after a few weeks with no mail. Because, you know, the follow-up operation to track down unresponsive households takes more than a day.

And then there’s Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), who chaired the Oversight committee before Rep. Chaffetz assumed the top spot. The congressman said he’s thinking about throwing his hat in the ring for Speaker. I know that Rep. Issa cares a lot about an accurate census because in 2008, he sponsored a House resolution “demanding [that the] 2010 Census count every living person in the United States,” according to a June 11, 2008, press release. Fifty lawmakers, all of them Republicans, cosponsored Issa’s resolution (H.Res. 1262, 110th Congress), which the House dutifully passed in September 2008.

I’m sure the Census Bureau was planning to do everything it could to produce an accurate population count, even if members of Congress weren’t so demanding. But I’m relieved that Rep. Issa clarified the “living person” part.

Depending on how the thrilling Speaker’s race turns out, Congress could be demanding that the Census Bureau send postal workers to count Americans living (or living Americans!) in Chile in 2020. Or something like that.

The original Rep. Daniel Webster, by the way, was on the ballot for President in 1852, for the Know Nothing Party. (Yes, there was such a political party, formally known as the American Party, which nominated that well-known president, Millard Filmore.) We could all become modern-day Know Nothings if the current Speaker-hopeful Webster prevails in his quest to axe the ACS.