In Census Budget Bills, Words Matter

In the early part of this decade, former Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) inserted language into a Senate appropriations bill report requiring that the 2020 Census’ overall, 10-year budget be no more than the costs of the previous 2010 Census. The bill report language became law. For better or worse, this led the U.S. Census Bureau to rely heavily on untested IT/internet options for the 2020 Census to cut costs.

By the middle of this decade, House Republicans were routinely inserting bill language into their versions of the annual census appropriations bill decrying the respondent “burden” to those who participated in the American Community Survey (ACS). Thankfully, the Senate never acceded to the House GOP’s bill language. Therefore, these attacks against the ACS never became law!

Now the Senate Appropriations Committee is proactively challenging the annual House bill report on the ACS. Thanks to information supplied by Census Project stakeholders, the Senate version of this year’s bill contains language stating the particular value of the ACS’s information to rural communities (which are Republican-dominated). The Senate language effectively negates the House action for FY 2018.

It’s for these reasons that the Census Project carefully reviews committee report language each year. Words matter!

 

 

This post has been updated to correctly refer to Sen. Mikulski. 

Senate Appropriators Discuss Census Funding Concerns with Commerce Secretary

By Howard Fienberg, director of government affairs, Insights Association

“Not only did the Government Accountability Office add the 2020 Census to its high-risk list, but a critical computer system was recently discovered to have surpassed its budget by $309 million. As the 2020 Census approaches, such news does not instill confidence in the Department’s preparation for this constitutional requirement.”

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) opened discussion about the Census Bureau at a recent hearing reviewing the Department of Commerce’s FY2018 budget proposal with a bunch of concerns about the decennial Census and how to fund it. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS Subcommittee, which determines funding for the Census Bureau.

The 2020 Census “is very important to this committee,” Shelby continued, “because this is a very expensive item” with a “ballooning cost.” He asked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to prioritize “activities to reduce overall cost.”

”How,” Shelby asked, “does the 2020 budget request keep the budget on track to ensure that the 2020 census remains at or below the cost of the 2010 census,” and “are changes planned for the upcoming year that will affect current cost projections?”

Secretary Ross started with the resignation of Census Bureau Director John Thompson. “We have appointed a temporary replacement for him and are actively seeking a new permanent director of the census. We hope to have that completed as soon as we possibly can.”

The Census Bureau has “been a great concern” for Ross, specifically “making sure we do accurately count every person where that person normally lives” and doing so “as economically as we can.” He continued:

“Census as you know undertook a very large technological change in the way the Census is taken. Their hope in that is to preserve the accuracy and yet reduce the budgetary cost. My concerns about it have been the complexity of what they’re trying to do and the number of moving parts that have to be brought together at the right time under the right cost. I’m particularly concerned that many of the key contracts are on a time and material basis and that is a very dangerous way to do contracting in that it has an implied incentive for the contracting partner to perhaps use more time than one might if it were on a fixed-cost basis.”

In response, the Commerce Department finance staff have partnered with OMB staff “to do a crash review of what has been going on and why there was suddenly this 47% surprise overrun, what are the implications for the relationships between the census department and these contractors going forward, and what may be the maximum possible cost we could encounter should we continue with the full technological effort underway, or should there be some modification.”

Ross indicated that he did not “have a high degree of confidence in the budget” request from the White House for FY18, but he promised the subcommittee “that when we come back, it will be a number we can stand behind.”

For more background, see the Insights Association 1-pagers on Census funding and the American Community Survey (ACS).

. . .

This article was originally posted on the Insights Association’s website on June 20.

Census Project Wrong, Trump Right!

After last week’s Census Project blog post stated that the FY 2018 Trump administration budget request for the Census Bureau contained just a $51 million increase for the Census Bureau, several sharp-eyed project stakeholders sent us email saying we were too generous to the new administration.

They said that the FY 2018 proposal for the Census Bureau was tens of millions of dollars lower. According to the administration’s own congressional testimony last Thursday, our Census Project stakeholders were right and we were wrong!

In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the budget request from the Trump Administration was a skimpy $1.5 billion, or just a $27 million increase for the Census Bureau next year.

Something now must give. Congress has to save the 2020 Census. Otherwise, Census Bureau options could include: savaging other important survey programs like the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Economic Census to salvage at least part of the 2018 End-To- End field test; cutting back important components of the test; or reducing test sites. None of these options are good ones.

The Tangle of the Census Budget

At an oversight hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies this week, it was clear that there are two conflicting views of preparations for the 2020 Census. Republicans on this central committee, which controls the purse strings in the House, are concerned about overruns in 2020 Census budget planning. Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee are concerned about underfunding the next decennial census.

Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) sharply criticized Census Bureau Director John Thompson for announcing that the price tag for the overall 2020 Census had increased by more than $300 million because the IT components of the plan had been underpriced.

Committee member and Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA) said continued underfunding of 2020 Census planning was “penny wise and pound foolish.” In fact, he partially blamed the cost overruns on the lack of previous funding in the census budget to get the job done at a reasonable price. He warned that similar, future budget cuts could lead to the same result.

While the policymakers on the subcommittee wrangle, Congress itself is set to approve a FY 2017 census budget that is a historically low appropriation at this point in decade cycle.

The Census Project believes the upcoming FY 2018 census budget represents the last, best chance for congressional policymakers and the Trump administration to get things right for the critical 2018 End-to-End field test of all components for the new, innovative 2020 Census.

Stand by!

Policymaker Challenges for the 2020 Census

By Phil Sparks

Over the past two months, stakeholders of the Census Project – including the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the International Council of Shopping Centers and the National Association of Counties – visited more than 40 congressional offices, warning them of the consequences of inadequate funding for the 2020 Census.

Our stakeholders reported back that many of the key offices they visited needed an in-depth updating on both the importance of the next decennial and how it is funded. And, many political challenges lie ahead.

For example, one knowledgeable congressional aide predicted to our stakeholders that Congress will simply “flat line” this year’s census budget at the same levels as last year, and kick the can down the road.

The Census Project believes this would be dangerous. The Census Bureau needs significant, additional funds in 2018 for the so-called End-to-End field test of new technologies designed to make the 2020 Census more efficient and less costly to the American taxpayer.

Something has got to give, and Census Project stakeholders are working hard with policymakers in Congress to understand the consequences of underfunding the next decennial census.

Back Here On Earth…

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy 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.

 

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.