On November 10, 2020, the Senate Appropriations Committee released all 12 of its appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2021, including the Commerce Justice Science (CJS) bill, which would fund the Census Bureau at nearly $1.8 billion overall. This would include $285 million for the Current Surveys and Programs account and more than $1.514 billion for the Periodic Census and Programs account (but $3.556 million of that amount would be given to the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General, for investigation and audits of the 2020 Census).
The Senate committee’s recommendation is more than a $5.758 billion decrease in funding from FY 2020. Obviously, compared to a decennial census year, the amount looks small, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed more funding than was requested originally in the FY 2021 President’s Budget (nearly $1.672 billion), and more than in either The Census Project’s FY 2021 budget request (just over $1.681 billion), or by the House-passed FY 2021 CJS bill on July 31 (also just over $1.681 billion).
Report language explains that they listened to arguments from The Census Project and stakeholders “that with the unanticipated delay in field operations, it would not be prudent to assume that prior year funds provided for executing the Decennial Census will be available to offset the total needed for fiscal year 2021. Therefore, the Committee provides the full amount identified for fiscal year 2021 in the Independent Cost Estimate for Decennial Census operations.”
Senate appropriators noted that they have “consistently advocated for the Bureau to execute a cost effective and accurate Decennial Census.” With the Census Bureau in the crucial data review, analysis and processing stage of the 2020 Census, the committee report encourages “the Bureau focus on successfully completing any remaining operations.”
However, the appropriations bill makes no mention of extending the census data reporting deadlines to provide additional time for that review, analysis and processing stage.
The committee report provides helpful direction on a number of issues important to census stakeholders, including:
- The American Community Survey (ACS): The report urges the Census Bureau “to continue using the ACS as a testbed for innovative survey and data processing techniques,” and then opines on the importance of the rolling survey, which “is often the primary or only source of data available to State, local, and Federal agencies that need adequate information on a wide range of topics.” Because ACS data “is especially important to small towns and rural areas across the country,” the report directs the Census Bureau to “ensure that rural areas are covered with the same accuracy as urban areas to the maximum extent practicable.” Recognizing the problem of respondent burden, the report “expects the Bureau to continue providing updates to the Committee on efforts to evaluate and, where possible, to reduce the number of questions included in the ACS, as well as the steps being taken to ensure that the ACS is conducted as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible.”
- Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP): As explained in the report language, the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the White House’s “proposed cut to SIPP” in the Current Surveys and Programs account, as recommended by The Census Project, “and provides no less than the fiscal year 2020 enacted level for this survey.”
- Evaluating the 2020 Census: The report requires the Bureau to report within a year “evaluating the effectiveness of its 2020 Census operations, the ability to enumerate hard-to-count populations, the overall data quality, as well as the costs and the adequacy of resource allocation throughout the Decennial Census cycle. As part of this evaluation, the Bureau should include elements such as modified operations, the use of secretarial and risk-based contingency funds, and any effects on the quality or accuracy of data derived from the 2020 Census that may be attributable to such modifications.”
- Making decennial data available: The report encourages the Census Bureau “to work closely with stakeholders representing public interests, the Census Advisory Committees, and the data user community to ensure the availability of accurate data products for use by the public.”
- Continued study of differential privacy: “The Bureau should continue seeking regular feedback from data users on disclosure avoidance and to evaluate privacy protection methods being considered for other Bureau data programs.”
- Cybersecurity: The report “directs the Census Bureau to coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security, and other relevant agencies,” as well as state and local government stakeholders and the private sector “to prepare for, prevent, and disrupt cyber intrusions and disinformation campaigns that have the potential to impact survey participation or compromise data collected by the Census Bureau.“
- Local tech partnerships: The committee report urges the Bureau to continue to partner “public libraries and other community technology centers to maximize” survey response.”
- Improving the Census Bureau’s digital interfaces: The report is supportive of the Census Bureau modernizing “its internal and external digital services consistent with the requirements of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act [IDEA] (Public Law 115–336)… to improve digital service delivery and data dissemination.” The committee specifically called for the Bureau to use “cloud services its website to help achieve cost savings, efficiencies, and compliance.”
- Renovations at Census Bureau HQ: The committee report rejects “the proposed transfer of” $208 million in prior year 2020 Census funding “to the Census Working Capital Fund to renovate the Suitland, Maryland, headquarters building and other Census facilities” because “the count is still ongoing.” The committee also raised concerns about “the costs of the proposed renovation,” which is intended to allow the Bureau of Labor Statistics to move in.
The House and Senate are expected to negotiate and approve an omnibus appropriations deal to fund the government in FY 2021 before the current Continuing Resolution expires on December 11.