Enlightening Congress: A Novel Idea!

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…
(George Gershwin)

Census stakeholders, the lazy days of the August congressional district work period are almost upon us. House and Senate appropriators have dutifully blessed their respective versions of the appropriations bill (H.R. 2787/S. 1329) covering Census Bureau activities for the fiscal year beginning October 1. The two chambers are miles apart — $138 million, to be exact — on how much to invest in the nation’s most publicly familiar statistical agency, but I think we can safely say it will be a while before they settle on a final number (that’s what the ubiquitous continuing funding resolution is for — buying time!).

But please don’t fall asleep in your lounge chair for the rest of the summer, people; we have work to do. You see, appropriations bills aren’t just about the money. Shall we take a moment to reminisce? Little more than a year ago, House members were considering the Fiscal Year 2013 Commerce funding bill, which (by the way) knocked 40 percent off the Census Bureau’s budget request for 2020 census planning. But I digress. The real excitement started when Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) offered a neat idea: Let’s make response to the American Community Survey (ACS) optional! Sure, every witness (save the congressman himself) at a hearing on Poe’s bill to accomplish this goal strongly objected to it. ACS response rates would plummet; costs would rise substantially; data quality would diminish to the point where the Census Bureau might not be able to produce any data for the nation’s smallest areas (which might include 41 percent of counties). But why let dismal facts get in the way; the amendment breezed through by simple voice vote.

Not satisfied with a weakened ACS, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) took to the floor to ask why we need the survey at all. It’s an invasion of privacy! The government has no business snooping into our personal lives, financial status and housing conditions! The Constitution only permits a headcount! Poof! Funding for the ACS went up in smoke on a mostly party-line vote.

Perhaps I can articulate the anti-data collection arguments more vividly. “Is nothing to escape [the Federal government’s] inquisition or its tax gatherers? Are even our hens and chickens to be listed, and an authenticated expose forwarded to Washington?” Or how about, “It seems to me that they imply an invasion of domestic privacy which it is essential tyranny to enforce and slavishness to submit to. [And] I invite Republicans to join me in the contumacy to the Federal power… “. How’s that for eloquence! The writer, by the way, was John H. Pleasants, editor of the Virginia Whig newspaper, needling Democratic Census Superintendent William Weaver, a Van Buren administration appointee, in 1840.

Fanning the flames of census controversy between the Whigs and the Democrats, Rep. Alexander Stephens (Whig-GA) challenged the collection of data beyond a strict population count in the 1850 census on constitutional grounds. As the Congressional Globe (precursor to the Congressional Record) documented on May 1, 1850, Mr. Stephens “thought it perfectly clear, that as that clause of the Constitution authorized nothing but an enumeration of the people, the action of Congress should be confined to that subject alone.” (In those days, Congress passed a new census bill each decade, establishing the enumeration’s parameters.)

Rep. James Thompson (D-PA), proponent of the bill authorizing the 1850 count, pushed back. “What is the constitutional question that has been presented here? It is said that we have no power to take these statistics. … Sir, we possess the power to procure this information upon another ground … It is the right to enlighten the legislative mind… Why do we ask these questions with regard to age? Because we want to know the physical condition of the country.” Imagine… trying to enlighten the legislative mind. Or, as columnist George Will (yes, he of staunch conservative pedigree) wrote in a recent column (The Washington Post, 7/12/13), abolishing the ACS (and making response voluntary) “would require government to be unnecessarily ignorant.”

Fast-forward 163 years. When Congress returns from its summer recess, we should be ready for Round Two (or five or ten; historical examples abound) of the never-ending assault on the collection of data that informs decision-making and resource allocation in almost every sector, public and private, of our society. Hopefully, for every Rep. Stephens (GA, 1850) still roaming the Capitol halls, there is a Thomas Jefferson (a champion of limited federal government powers!), who advocated gathering census data beyond a mere headcount to produce “facts highly important to society.”

Will census history forever repeat itself? If so, beware the Ides of March, for that is when Congress finally wrapped up the 2013 funding bills this past winter (six months late, naturally). For the sake of an informed nation and transparent government, let us pray that lawmakers see the folly — and danger —of plunging the world’s greatest democracy into an information black hole. And just in case prayer fails us, let’s hoist ourselves out of our late summer stupor and ask our elected officials why “we shall do better if we act in the dark, than if we have light; that we shall do better to remain in ignorance, than if we obtain information.” (Thank you, Rep. Thompson of Pennsylvania. And, no, we will not be counting chickens in the ACS!)