Critical Census Budget Action Needed

The Continuing Resolution (CR) which froze both the overall federal budget and the Census Bureau budget at FY 2017 levels expires in early December. This could require another short-term CR if Congress can’t agree on a FY 2018 budget compromise. Or, Congress could immediately enact a final FY 2018 budget.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have proposed an additional $187 million for the Census Bureau for FY 2018, to mostly pay for much-needed IT systems development. And, the administration now says it will request an additional $3.3 billion in lifecycle costs between now and the decennial count to pay for the full costs of the 2020 Census!

The Census Project believes the administration’s FY 2018 request for the 2020 Census is still too low. But, the project does support the additional funds that have been requested.

A letter from about 100 Census Project stakeholders to congressional policymakers describes the new administration funding request for FY 2018 as “an important down payment towards the additional $3.3 billion the administration says it needs over the next three years to conduct a fair, accurate and successful 2020 Census.”

“No funds are included in the revised FY 2018 Census Bureau budget for timely development of the full advertising campaign, launch of the Partnership Program, restoring cancelled field tests in rural areas, or to adapt operations to remedy the impact of disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California that increase the risk of an incomplete census count in those communities,” the letter continued. “The new request does not include sufficient funding for historic numbers of partnership specialists, who help state and local officials and trusted community leaders support census operations through focused outreach and promotion to their constituencies. These operations help reduce costs by boosting self-response and increase accuracy by targeting messages to historically hard-to-count communities. We strongly urge additional funding for these important activities in the final omnibus funding measure for Fiscal 2018.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney has introduced legislation (H.R. 4013) to provide the Census Bureau with $1.9 billion in FY 2018 — an increase of $251 million above the administration’s adjusted request, or $438 million more funding this fiscal year.

Congress is now at a critical crossroad in terms of funding the 2020 Census.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Sometimes, my blog practically writes itself. I mean, it’s hard to make this stuff up!

Take, for example, the recent census hazing in the House of Representatives. As lawmaker after lawmaker rose to offer amendments chipping away at the Census Bureau’s budget — already down 9 percent coming out of committee — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe visit an otolaryngologist; the hearing is one of the first things to go at my age.

Anyway, most offenders took pains to convince colleagues (really, who else but a few fellow census junkies and I would be watching this stuff on C-SPAN when the sun was already rising over Moscow?) that their census piggybank raid was only a teensy percentage of the agency’s budget. Apparently, they forgot the well-known analogy that if everyone in the office sneaks one cookie from the box in the communal kitchen, there won’t be any Thin Mints left when the boss comes in to satisfy his sweet tooth. Okay, I made that up, but you see where this is going. First, $110 million, then $4 million, $3 million here, $12 million there, and soon you’re talking about the entire 2015 “ramp up” for 2020 Census planning.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bill (S. 2437) last week. Discipline reigned — Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) run a tight ship — with nary a raiding amendment to be heard during the entire markup. Senate appropriators deserve some credit; their spending measure includes $1.15 billion for the Census Bureau, with a $66.7 million cut to the account that covers the 2020 Census and ACS (compared to a $238 million cut in the House; the Senate bill reduced President Obama’s total Census Bureau request by $62.5 million, adding $4 million to the request for the Current Population Survey in the second agency account).

But the Senate isn’t cutting the Census Bureau any slack. The committee reminded everyone that the 2020 Census should cost less than the 2010 count, not adjusting for inflation. And then it prodded the agency to secure administrative records from federal, state and local agencies pronto, to help reach that goal. As if datasets are primed, consistent, thorough and ready for transfer at the click of mouse. I have a nagging feeling that lawmakers have not come to grips with the complexity of redesigning the census.

But, back to our friends in the House, whose very membership in that august chamber depends on an accurate census (she said without a trace of irony). The drip-drip-drip actually started in the House Appropriations Committee, with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-CA) pilfering $1 million from the census account to help disabled veterans and exploited children. Hard to point the finger there. Except, you can’t open the floodgates and then say you didn’t realize the water would pour out. Sure enough, coastal fisheries soon snapped up another $10 million. And when no one thought to ask whether the Census Bureau might need money to plan for the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization or produce the data that actually guide program dollars to the home district, lawmakers quickly caught on that census funding was theirs for the taking. The madness stopped only after the subcommittee chairman did the math on the House floor and concluded that we might not have a census in 2020.

Truth be told, it’s easy for legislators to draw a straight line between, say, Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (funded through the same bill as the Census Bureau) and more cops on the street, crime prevention, and drug treatment centers in their backyards. The press release just rolls off the tongue. But the fact that these very grants are allocated based on a state’s share of violent crime and population (equally weighted), with population calculated to the hundredth of a percent?Now, that’s getting into the formula weeds, and Congress doesn’t do nuance very well. It’s a press secretary’s nightmare.

And so we have the Senate Appropriations Committee summary of its funding bill, highlighting the $376 million allocated for Byrne grants and other programs that help “fight violent crime, gangs, and terrorism” and “keep our communities safe.” The nation’s primary source of information about its well-being, progress and needs? Didn’t even warrant a footnote in a seven-page press release.

It’s on to the full Senate, and then negotiations to iron out differences between the two measures. Now, if we can only fend off those Alabama red snappers, Pacific coast salmon and Maryland crabs when the bill hits the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Postscript: A Census Project Blog shout-out to Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), who circulated a Dear Colleague letter urging House members to reject cuts to the Census Bureau’s budget and proposals to make American Community Survey response voluntary; and to Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who made a point of telling his colleagues that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not tap the Census Bureau for money.