By Terri Ann Lowenthal
It’s time to come back down to earth, after the madcap, pre-Christmas scramble on Capitol Hill to pass a mammoth FY2016 spending bill on time, which in congressional-speak means “before the second quarter of the fiscal year begins.”
Or maybe not. Come back down to earth, that is.
I recently watched a rerun of CNN’s “The Sixties” segment on the race into space. Being of a, ahem, certain age, I vividly remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s grainy first steps onto the lunar surface almost a half century ago. It’s hard not to be thrilled by space adventures — men and women of uncommon courage, fortitude, and smarts, floating in near solitude thousands of miles above the Earth, the only planet teeming with life of which we are currently aware…
Oh, sorry. This is a blog about the U.S. census. It’s just that, as luck would have it, funding for the Census Bureau falls under the same Appropriations subcommittee as — you guessed it — NASA. And last year, the helm of that panel passed to Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), whose Houston district is perilously close to the — right, again! — Johnson Space Center.
Chairman Culberson really, really loves space exploration! In an interview last month with Science magazine’s Jeffrey Mervis, the congressman seemed positively giddy over the additional $175 million he snagged to accelerate a mission to Europa. Which, for those unfamiliar with planetary jargon, is not a sexy reference to our allies across the Atlantic, but one of Jupiter’s moons. NASA didn’t ask for that much money, Mr. Mervis reported, but that didn’t deter the chairman from increasing the administration’s request almost six-fold. “The only way to confirm there’s life in the oceans of Europa is to land on the surface and sample the ice,” Rep. Culberson told Science. Can’t argue with that logic.
This is exciting stuff, people. Far more thrilling than, let’s say, figuring out how to count 330 million Americans and put each of them at a specific address on April 1, 2020. Or translating census forms into 60 languages. Or testing whether check-boxes or write-in lines yield the most accurate data on racial subgroups.
The chairman is “passionate” about the Europa mission. Finding life on a Jovian moon will be, he told Science, a “transformational moment in human civilization.” Unlike, say, pulling off a census that doesn’t undercount some population groups — people of color, young children, low income households, immigrants — at higher rates than others (non-Hispanic Whites), which would help us achieve our democracy’s promise of equal representation and fair distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid. Oh, is that snoring I hear?
Let’s be frank. Outside of our spirited universe of census fans, the decennial population count does not set too many hearts a-flutter. You cannot gather ‘round the family television, watching wide-eyed as census takers amble door-to-door, mobile devices in hand … for weeks on end. A stab at census humor won’t impress the guy next to you on the pub barstool. “Hey, here’s a great joke: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Ma’am, I’m with the U.S. Census Bureau …” You’re laughing, but no one else is. Trust me.
Meanwhile, back here on Earth, the Census Bureau is busy preparing for the 2016 Census Test in Los Angeles and Harris (TX) Counties, pursuing a contract for the 2020 Census communications campaign, analyzing results from the 2015 questionnaire content test, and finalizing rules that will determine where people — including prisoners — will be counted. After all, the agency has to take a census four years from now, using whatever resources and following whatever operational directives Congress deems appropriate. The Constitution says so.
The omnibus spending bill that funds the government in 2016 brought the Census Bureau back from the brink of fiscal disaster, after the House of Representatives cut the 2020 Census planning budget by upwards of 40 percent and the ACS budget by 20 percent. The final package reduced the requested funding level for each program by roughly 10 percent, enough money to keep primary planning activities on schedule and maintain the ACS sample size. Chairman Culberson told Science that the Census Bureau has the “support they need to complete their mission.” (I love how space enthusiasts refer to everything as a “mission”!) However, he still thinks Americans should be able to opt-out of answering the ACS, to guard against the Census Bureau “harassing American citizens or invading their privacy.” That didn’t work so well in Canada, but we Americans like to work things out ourselves.
The White House is tweaking President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, scheduled for release on February 9th. It’s a good thing the annual appropriations season kick-off isn’t a week earlier on Groundhog Day, because the Census Bureau can’t press the repeat button on funding when it’s ramping up for a decennial census. Planning activities in 2017 include submitting the 2020 Census question topics to Congress (by April 1st), testing the Census Questionnaire Assistance operation, overseeing development of the massive communications campaign, and starting the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program.
Expect another huge proportional bump in requested funding for the 2020 Census, and be prepared to fight for it, census Jedis.