All I Want For Christmas…

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I was wringing my hands as Santa’s helpers on Capitol Hill rushed to tie the bow on a final budget package for Fiscal Year 2016. Would lawmakers leave a stocking full of coal for the U.S. Census Bureau? Would the Grinch steal our hopes for an accurate 2020 Census and reliable American Community Survey (ACS)?

I had good reason to fret. Earlier this year, House appropriators slashed the Obama Administration’s budget request for the 2020 Census by 40 percent, and for the ACS by 20 percent. Itching to make a bad situation worse, the full House of Representatives cut another 10 percent ($117 million) from the $1.2 billion request for the Periodic Censuses and Programs account (for a total cut of 41 percent), which includes the 2020 Census, ACS, Economic Census, and other vital geographic and IT support activities.

The carnage that was the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) would have forced the Census Bureau to postpone award of a massive communications contract; cancel a nationwide test of new, cost-saving address canvassing methods; stop work on a ‘help desk’ for census takers (who will be using electronic devices for the first time); and eliminate new methods that tell us how accurate the census is. (Does anyone else see the irony in shortchanging census planning to the point that we wouldn’t have reliable measures of undercounts and overcounts?)

Another casualty of the proposed budget squeeze would have been the ACS sample size (a decrease of 15 percent, to 3 million homes), making it necessary to extend the period for averaging data for all communities from 5 to 6 years. To make sure it destabilized the ACS even further, the House also voted to make survey response voluntary.

Senate appropriators strained to be more generous, cutting the Periodic Censuses request (without specifying how the money should be spent) by a mere 30 percent. (Okay, I shall pull my tongue out of my cheek; this is serious business.) In a refreshing repudiation of the House’s anti-ACS orthodoxy, the funding committee affirmed the importance of ACS data for informed decision-making. It then offered a measly $22 million increase, over last year’s budget, for the entire Periodics account, all but ensuring a lack of resources to maintain a viable ACS sample size and keep 2020 Census planning on track.

As the clock ticked down on the temporary spending measure that had kept the government running since October 1, I tried to conjure up visions of sugarplums. Surely lawmakers would see the need for a healthy ramp-up in funding for the bedrock of our representative democracy, and understand the dire consequences of starving census planning, only two years before the start of an end-to-end readiness test and four years before census preparations are in full swing. Fortunately, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-74) offered some hope of a holiday miracle, as lawmakers bumped up funding for nondefense programs by $33 billion and then cloistered themselves under the Capitol dome to divide the spoils among government agencies.

In the wee hours of last Wednesday morning, the appropriations elves snuck their big holiday package — the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 (H.R. 2029) — onto the Internet. And what to my wondering eyes should appear… but $1.37 billion for the Census Bureau, 10 percent less than the agency’s request of $1.5 billion, but, oh, so welcome in the face of looming fiscal disaster. The “omnibus” budget bill allocated $1.1 billion for the Periodics account, but prudently left it to the bureau’s Wise Men (and Women) to divvy up the funds among the 2020 census, ACS, and other activities. The House language making ACS response optional quietly disappeared, as well.

And so, another year of census funding angst has come to a close. Enjoy the rest of the holiday season, census fans, because in six short weeks, the President will kick off a new budget cycle with his Fiscal Year 2017 request. If you think we pushed a boulder up a hill this year, remember that the census budget ramp-up gets bigger as the “zero” year approaches, and that Congress has been known to kick the appropriations can down the road in presidential election years, leaving agencies spinning their wheels under flat-funding until a new Administration and Congress take office months after the start of the fiscal year.

But for now, Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night. See you next year!