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.

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!

The Case for a Mandatory ACS: Count on Americans to Get It Right

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have to start today’s census musing with an apology of sorts. It occurred to me, as I relay Appropriations Committee proceedings with tongue firmly in cheek, that some readers might think I do not like fish. Or, to be more precise, that I do not appreciate the importance of the fishing industry and coastal zone preservation. Au contraire, mon amis: I love the fishermen (oops, sorry; channeling you-know-who for a moment there), regularly consume fish, and live in a coastal state myself. It’s just that, when one is waiting patiently for a sign — any sign — that lawmakers appreciate the fundamental importance of a successful census and reliable data to the very foundation of our democracy, and the conversation keeps turning to counts of, um, fish, one can become despondent over the possibility that the nation’s largest, most inclusive, and most complex civic activity will get the short end of the budget stick. Again.

I had to get that off my chest before the Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the Census Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2017 funding bill (Commerce, Justice, and Science, or CJS) this week. As CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) helpfully noted when Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker testified in March, the largest chunk of new money for department programs is for 2020 Census planning.

The total request for the 2020 Census is $778 million; related activities, such as the new enterprise data processing system and geographic system updates, will support that effort. The Census Bureau also needs $251 million for the decennial census’ conjoined twin, the American Community Survey (ACS), to maintain a reliable sample size and continue researching new methods that will make it easier for the public to respond — a primary congressional goal.

Chairman Shelby told the Secretary that he is worried the Census Bureau is behind schedule in meeting its milestones to prepare for the census. Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reminded everyone that past enumerations have been plagued by “techno-boondoggles” (I did not make up that word), but that an accurate census remained the top goal. We will wait with baited (a fishing term!) breath to see how much money the committee is willing to spend on the bedrock of the nation’s democracy, but I find it hard to grasp how cutting the budget at this point will move the needle in the right direction.

At the March hearing, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) engaged the Commerce chief in the most substantive discussion about Census Bureau programs. In 2012, then-Rep. Lankford helped steer his House colleagues off the cliff into a data black hole, by championing an amendment to eliminate the ACS entirely. His distaste for the survey — whose results help guide the allocation of billions of dollars through other parts of the same appropriations bill, she said without a hint of irony — seems not to have waned; he offered, and then withdrew, an amendment to make ACS response voluntary during consideration of last year’s CJS bill.

This year, the Senator pressed Secretary Pritzker for information on Census Bureau research into making the ACS a more pleasant experience for households fortunate enough to be selected for the nation’s premier survey on the well-being of our communities. Okay, he didn’t exactly say it that way. Nevertheless, we haven’t heard much about the “2015 Summer Mandatory Messaging Test,” so perhaps it would be helpful to consider the findings before lawmakers think again about relieving put-upon Americans of their duty to answer a few queries confidentially for the common good.

Using the September 2015 ACS sample as a test-bed, the bureau evaluated the consequences of several design and messaging changes to ACS materials (e.g. envelopes, questionnaire, reminder postcard, etc.). The modifications included “softening” (by wording choice, visually, or both) or even removing the mandatory response tagline (which currently reads, “Your response is required by law.”) from some or all of the mailings, and highlighting the survey’s importance and benefits.

But before we look at the results, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, to when lawmakers first got the itch to let Americans opt out of a civic duty that helps ensure a fair, equitable, and informed society. In 2003, at the direction of Congress, the Census Bureau tested the implications of making the ACS a voluntary survey. The outcome was not pretty: mail response rates would plunge; costs — and, ironically, the burden on the public — would rise significantly ($90+ million/year, according to the latest estimate), due to greater reliance on more costly telephone and door-to-door follow-up and the larger sample size necessary to compensate for lower response; and data reliability for smaller communities (towns! neighborhoods! rural counties!) and smaller populations (people with disabilities! veterans! ethnic subgroups!) would drop, perhaps beyond the point of acceptability.

The findings were so stark that Congress barely said another word about mandatory response for almost 10 years. (Our Canadian friends, however, apparently didn’t get the memo. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party pushed through a bill to make their census long form voluntary. Predictably, the renamed 2011 National Household Survey was a data disaster for less populous and geographically smaller areas. The outcry from the business community, municipal officials, and policy researchers was loud enough to prompt a swift restoration of the mandatory survey when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office last fall.)

The Census Bureau’s 2003 test and Canada’s experience provided consistent evidence of what Congress and the nation would lose if ACS response were voluntary. Never ones to be deterred by a universally panned idea, however, House Members voted three times to make ACS response optional; Senators, fortunately, refused to go along.

The Census Bureau is taking congressional concerns about the ACS’s perceived intrusiveness seriously. It has consulted with the best survey experts in the business and is researching ways to replace some survey questions with data from other government datasets (administrative records) and ask others less frequently. Then there is last year’s test of design modifications and different ways to convey that response is mandatory.

And whadda’ya know? The experimental design that strengthened the mandatory message and added a plug about the importance of the survey yielded the best outcome in terms of response rates, data reliability, and cost, even compared with the current materials. Self-response and final response rates were “significantly” higher, leading the bureau to project cost savings of $7.3 million per year and better data reliability (i.e. reduced margins of error in the data, which is, after all, derived from a sample). In fact, if the bureau continued to spend the same amount of money on the survey, it could increase the sample size by 4.7 percent, thereby reducing margins of error even more. (If the bureau reduced the sample size but maintained current data reliability, costs would drop even further.)

On the flip side, experimental designs that diminished the emphasis on mandatory response yielded, almost across the board, “significantly” lower response rates. If that were to happen, the Census Bureau would have to decrease the sample size by up to 12 percent, resulting in worse data, or increase the sample size by up to 11 percent to maintain data reliability, at an additional cost of up to $42 million. In other words, pick your poison: pay more, or risk more unusable data, all in the name of keeping the survey mandatory but not letting Americans in on the secret.

Here’s what I think. Most Americans are willing to do their part in support of a strong democracy and good governance. Tell them clearly and honestly why what you’re asking them to do is for the public good, and demonstrate that you don’t take their cooperation lightly and will not abuse the privilege, by continuously innovating and having some faith in your most important customer — the American people.

Congress, are you listening?

Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Members of Congress have deserted the Capitol for a holiday respite in their home districts. This is a good development, people. Lawmakers sometimes need a time-out… um, sorry, time off.

I am hoping some of them take a few minutes to brush up on the U.S. Constitution. Article I establishes the Legislative branch, and just a few sentences in, gives lawmakers their first responsibility: to oversee a count of the nation’s population every ten years. The census has to be as accurate as possible, because under the Fourteenth Amendment (which revised the original, flawed census clause), Americans have a right to equal representation — “one person, one vote.”

Despite the rather prominent constitutional placement of the census as a legislative duty, some lawmakers do not seem to think it is a priority. No, really, I am not making this up. For example, last week, the House Appropriations Committee considered the Commerce Department’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 spending bill. The draft bill, unveiled the previous week in the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee, cut the president’s budget request for the U.S. Census Bureau account that covers 2020 Census planning and the related American Community Survey (ACS) by $374 million. The full committee further constrained spending for both of these programs in the report that accompanies the bill: $400m for the 2020 Census and $200m for the ACS.

Just to remind you of where we started: the President proposed a $1.5 billion budget for the Census Bureau next year. $920 million of that was for the decennial census, divided into $663 million for 2020 Census planning (+317M over FY2015) and $257 million for the ACS (+$15M). For the 2020 Census, the bureau must develop IT systems and the operational design in time for an end-to-end readiness test in 2018. It must contract for a vast communications campaign that can navigate an increasingly fragmented media landscape; start preparing for questionnaire assistance and language support efforts; and research the most effective ways to reduce undercounting, avoid duplications, and count special populations, such as prisoners and overseas military personnel. By the time Congress wakes from its census slumber, most major decisions will be locked-in.

(Other activities in the Periodic Censuses and Programs account that are vital to an accurate census, such as evaluating and processing address and geo-spatial data from external sources, also are short-changed. The Administration proposed a $21m increase for Geographic Support to ensure that capacity keeps pace with the workload; the committee bill does not fund this request.)

For the ACS, the bureau needs roughly $240m just to maintain the current sample size and coverage (for example, including group quarters, such as college dorms, military barracks, prisons, and nursing homes). But the committee’s report lambasted the Census Bureau for not moving quickly enough to streamline the survey and reduce respondent burden. Bemoaning the fact that only one question (business or medical office on the property) fell by the wayside in the latest content review, the committee ordered the bureau to cut more questions expeditiously. (Note to the 1,700 data users whose comments convinced the Census Bureau to retain queries on marital history and field of undergraduate degree: you might want to let Congress know how much you love those questions. Get my drift?)

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been reading the Constitution. It has occurred to him that if Congress doesn’t invest in thorough planning, the 2020 Census could cost a lot more than lawmakers are willing to spend and could miss a lot of Americans who, historically, have been harder to enumerate. Those groups include people of color, rural and low-income residents, American Indians living on reservations, young children, and people whose first language is not English.

So, Congressman Honda offered an amendment in committee to increase Census Bureau funding to the President’s requested level. The agency is testing sweeping reforms to reduce costs and modernize methods, he noted, but without adequate funding, the bureau “may have to abandon plans for a modern census and go back to the outdated, more costly manual 2010 design.” The concept of a funding ramp-up for a cyclical program is not lost on Rep. Honda. “The underlying bill effectively flat funds the census, but the costs of preparing for, modernizing, and testing for the census are not flat.” The congressman may be stating the obvious, but clearly the committee needs a reminder.

Sophomore Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) endorsed the Honda amendment, highlighting the importance of ACS data to private industry, economic development, and veterans assistance programs. Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-CT) raised her hand to speak in support of the census and ACS, but the chairman prematurely ended debate. It gets like that sometimes after a long appropriations session.

Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) was not amused. He opposed the amendment, he said, because it did not propose to pay for the Census Bureau’s increase with funds from other programs within the bill (called an offset), thus busting the sacred “caps” set for each appropriations bill. Fair enough, and Rep. Honda planned to withdraw his amendment for that reason anyway.

But Rep. Culberson went on to point out that, while the census is important, the subcommittee had to make difficult choices about which programs deserved the most money. There’s manned space flight to Mars (Houston, which I represent in Congress, we have a problem.), counter-terrorism and anti-crime initiatives, those erstwhile Pacific coast salmon, neuroscience, and manufacturing institutes. “We’ve had to prioritize within the bill,” the congressman concluded. In fact, full committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY), in his opening remarks, had already highlighted “savings” in the bill from “lower priority” programs in the massive appropriations measure. See, I did not make this up.

On the bright side, there were no raids on the Census Bureau’s budget piggy-bank this time. Maybe Representatives are starting to feel a bit chagrined that a proposed 91 percent funding boost for the 2020 Census, to help the bureau get up the mountain in time, turned into a 17 percent molehill. But there’s still plenty of time for the Legislative branch to embarrass itself again when the full House takes up the Commerce spending bill, possibly as soon as next week.

What Price Democracy?

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Census Bureau was off to a relatively good start this year in the mysterious and powerful world of those who hold the purse strings, known fondly to many of us as the House and Senate appropriations committees. Or so I thought.

Last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker took the hot seat before the Senate panel that funds the federal government’s commerce, justice and science programs. This would be the subcommittee (albeit, with several new members) that barely acknowledged the existence of a census at last year’s budget hearing. The panel is heavily populated by lawmakers from coastal states, who apparently have nightmares about uncharted weather catastrophes and depleted fishing stocks.

But the 2020 Census got their attention this year, maybe because the Obama Administration requested a 91 percent funding increase to ramp up planning in Fiscal Year 2016 for the next decennial count. Which, if I haven’t mentioned recently, will be in full swing five years from now.

Panel Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) actually led off his opening statement and questioning with census-related concerns. He noted matter-of-factly the need for a significant funding increase to double-down on 2020 Census planning, and he cautioned the secretary to closely watch preparations to avoid future cost-overruns that could leave less money available for other Commerce Dept. programs. The subcommittee’s senior Democrat (and former chairwoman), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), briefly mentioned the technology “boondoggle” before the 2010 Census, and that was it. On to New England fisheries, support for U.S. manufacturers and that pesky “polar gap” in weather satellite coverage.

But things went downhill for the Census Bureau from there. The new chairman of the House Commerce/Justice/Science spending panel doesn’t much care for the American Community Survey (ACS), the modern version of the census long form. It’s “intrusive,” he told Secretary Pritzker when she appeared before his subcommittee this week, and the government doesn’t have a right to ask about anything other than the number of people in a household… or ancestry. Ancestry? Where did that come from?

But let’s move on. Ever since the Census Bureau wrapped up the last decennial census, appropriators have indicated that they aren’t willing to spend more on the 2020 Census than they did on the 2010 count. The lifecycle cost of the last population canvass was roughly $13 billion. The Census Bureau thinks it can meet that goal if all of the sweeping reforms it is considering work as envisioned. That’s a big “if,” what with budget shortfalls delaying, cancelling or streamlining critical research and testing of these new initiatives over the past few years. We simply don’t know yet if a markedly redesigned census can ensure an accurate count, especially in historically undercounted communities, and produce the detailed race and ethnicity data needed to implement the Voting Rights Act, as a threshold matter.

But Rep. Culberson apparently isn’t satisfied with those cost-saving efforts. “We don’t have $13 billion to spend on a census,” the chairman told Secretary Pritzker. The congressman wanted to know if the Census Bureau is ready to use Internal Revenue Service records and other government databases to help bring down census costs. The secretary gamely tried to emphasize the importance of testing, testing, testing, to see if that idea, which of course is under consideration, is a viable option. But I’m not sure the chairman has thought this through. If the Census Bureau doesn’t have enough money to thoroughly vet the use of administrative records to supplement or replace direct address canvassing and door-to-door visits, the 2020 Census could cost $1 or $2 billion more than the congressman says we can’t afford to spend. Nevertheless, Rep. Culberson again made it clear that “we won’t have the money next year” to meet the Census Bureau’s budget request.

And that tells me just about everything I need to know. Because if Congress can’t spend $13 billion over the course of a decade to carry out its very first obligation under the U.S. Constitution and to ensure fair political representation for all communities, no matter how difficult to count, then we might have to kiss our storied democracy good-bye and book a seat on that one-way mission to Mars. After all, the Johnson Space Center is pretty darn close to Chairman Culberson’s Houston district. I’m thinking some of that census money will end up fueling a mission to outer space.

Welcome 114th Congress: No Time for a Nap

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Happy 2015, census fans!

I have great news. According to the Census Act (Title 13, United States Code), we could be getting ready to launch a census. That’s right: lawmakers, way back in the radical 1970s, thought it would be a neat idea to survey the population not just once every 10 years, but every five years. So Congress authorized a mid-decade census to serve every useful purpose the decennial census does—like, um, measuring the characteristics of our population and housing, to see how well we’re doing and to address societal needs—except congressional reapportionment.

I know what you’re thinking. Did I miss something? Have I been asleep at the switch every spring during a calendar year that ends in “5” and neglected to fill out my mid-decade census form? Rest easy, civic-minded readers. Congress had a good idea (at the time), but lawmakers never wanted to pay for it. Wait. That sounds familiar! But, back to our story.

Of course, the universally popular American Community Survey has since eclipsed the idea of a mid-decade census. (Are you chuckling just a little?) The modern version of the census long form produces updated information about our communities every year, made all the more useful by advances in technology that allow us to access the data quickly and (relatively) easily. As our world seems to spin ever faster, the Census Bureau churns out objective facts and figures to help us make sense of it all.

You might be feeling comforted right about now, knowing that census data, as a public good, are available to everyone who wants to understand the world around them and have the tools both to improve their communities and to hold their civic leaders accountable. Well, please don’t lean back and take a nap just yet.

The new chairman of the Census Bureau’s U.S. House oversight committee doesn’t much care for the ACS. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) co-sponsored legislation to make ACS response voluntary (H.R. 1078, 113th Congress) and voted to ax the survey altogether in 2012. I think it’s fair to say that Chairman Chaffetz isn’t a big fan of data at all; he lent his name to a bill to get rid of all censuses and surveys, save the decennial population count (H.R. 1638, 113th Congress).

In fact, as we reach the midpoint of the decennial cycle, and the Census Bureau launches the second phase of 2020 Census planning with operations and system development, the census seems to be fading from view altogether. The reorganized House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform no longer has a subcommittee with “census” in the title. The description on the committee’s website of the revamped Subcommittee on Government Operations doesn’t mention the census at all (so you’ll have to take my word for it that this panel is the right one!). It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that timely and thorough oversight of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization of people and resources will be sitting on a back burner for a while.

I know that everyone’s issue is important. It’s a jungle out there in the policy world; everyone has to fight to be heard. But, I’m thinking that a mention in the very first lines of the Constitution might give the census a profile boost of some sort. You know, the very first responsibility—to oversee the population enumeration—the Constitution bestows upon the legislature (Article I, section 2). The raison d’etre that 435 members of the 114th Congress are sitting in their seats today. You’d think the activity that defines our democratic system of representation would garner a little more attention than its perennial role as piggybank for other programs during appropriations season. Maybe lawmakers haven’t had time to brush up on the nation’s founding document in a while.

Speaking of appropriations, the House Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee is in new hands. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) now leads the panel that funds everything from weather satellites to fisheries to export and manufacturing initiatives to community policing, counterterrorism and cyber-security programs to neuroscience and STEM education research. The Census Bureau is somewhere in that mix. So is NASA. Rep. Culberson is from Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center. Does anyone else hear that piggybank cracking open again? As if this picture isn’t looking scary enough to census fans, the new chairman also co-sponsored the voluntary ACS bill in the last Congress.

Across Capitol Hill, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was an original co-sponsor of a voluntary ACS response bill sponsored by fellow Blue Grass State Sen. Rand Paul in the last Congress (S. 530, 113th Congress). The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with legislative responsibility for the Census Bureau, has a new chairman: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). It appears that the full committee will exercise primary responsibility for oversight of the Census Bureau and federal statistical system.

But maybe ACS critics will reconsider their philosophical angst about requiring a few minutes of individual civic duty for the greater societal good when they see what happened to Saskatchewan. After Canada opted for a voluntary census long form in 2011 (the head of Statistics Canada resigned in protest), almost half of the territory sort of disappeared from the map. Seems that response rates dropped so steeply, the survey couldn’t produce reliable data for rural and less-populous areas.

U.S. lawmakers representing smaller counties might want to consider a stateside scenario. Self-response nosedives when the bureau can’t say, “Your response is required by law,” according to analysis of Census Bureau field-testing of the idea in 2003. It’s too expensive to make up for lower response rates with a larger sample or more phone calls and door-knocks. (ACS critics, please don’t humor me with assurances of funding the extra $100 million a year needed to overcome the response problem. Really? Have you been reading my blog?) The sample for rural and remote communities becomes too small and insufficiently representative to yield valid estimates. The Census Bureau can’t publish critical socio-economic data for jurisdictions with populations under 20,000, which require five years of accumulated sample (the so-called “5-year ACS estimates”). Poof! Half the counties in Utah and Kentucky could be wiped off the data map. I kind of like those census maps with all the little county squares in different colors. A lot of black would ruin the effect.

Maybe there’s another glimmer of hope. The new chairman of the House census oversight subcommittee, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), didn’t co-sponsor the optional ACS response legislation in the 113th Congress. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) was the ranking Democratic member of the Government Operations Subcommittee in 2013-14; he could pull the same duty this time around. Rep. Connolly earned my admiration when he pointedly told his colleagues, during consideration of the Census Bureau’s appropriations bill last spring, that an amendment he was offering, to increase funding for specialized veterans treatment courts, did not raid the statistical agency’s budget for money. At least someone gets it.

But I’m not closing my eyes for a snooze right now. I’m keeping a wary eye on the 114th Congress, which looks challenging, to say the least.

Let Them Count Fish!

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

My life as a census advocate just got infinitely easier.

The House of Representatives is considering the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, which includes funding for the U.S. Census Bureau. And through a series of late-night amendments, lawmakers stole so much money from the account that funds the 2020 Census and American Community Survey (ACS), to pay for other pet programs, that subcommittee Chairman (and bill manager) Frank Wolf (R-VA) finally pointed out the obvious: If we keep taking money from the Census Bureau, he said, we won’t have a census in 2020.

Well, that might be an exaggeration, because that pesky U.S. Constitution requires one. For the purpose of deciding how many members of Congress each state will have. And how the lines of each district are drawn. Details, details.

Now, Congress has already told the Census Bureau that it must conduct the 2020 Census for the same price tag as the 2010 Census: $13 billion. Proposed investments in research and testing of bold innovations and a redesigned census will help the Census Bureau achieve that goal, with potential savings of $5 billion in the lifecycle cost of the decennial enumeration. The research and testing phase ends next year; the bureau must figure out which new methods are sound enough to pursue in the systems and operational development phase.

But if Congress won’t invest in planning now, the Census Bureau will have no choice but to start preparing for a traditional — and far more costly — paper-and-pencil census. Of course, that design will cost about $18 billion, according to Census Bureau and GAO estimates. Let’s think about this for a minute. The bureau could start the enumeration in 2020, and then stop the count when it reaches its $13 billion limit — and then lawmakers can fight over whose districts disappear. Boy, this is kind of fun…

But maybe I’m just giddy because it’s approaching midnight as I write this (as debate on the House floor goes on and on). Seriously, the Census Bureau does have other, more sensible, choices if Congress decides to slash its funding by 20 percent. It could stop conducting the American Community Survey (ACS). Who needs all of those data on education, veterans, income and poverty, people with disabilities, housing conditions, commuting patterns, language spoken at home, and labor force characteristics, when you can just look it up on the World Wide Web (or survey your surroundings while you sit in traffic)? And think about how much money we would save, not allocating that $415+ billion annually in program funds to state and local governments that Congress bases on ACS data!

I know, I know: many of you really like the ACS. Do not fret; the Census Bureau could cancel the Economic Census (including final tabulation and dissemination of 2012 Economic Census data and the upcoming 2017 survey). Who needs to calculate the GDP anyway?

The House of Representatives should be embarrassed. Do the people we elect to represent us — umm, based on a decennial population count — really believe the Census Bureau can start planning to enumerate 330 million people, in 134+ million households, in, say, 2018? Do they really not understand that if they want to allocate funds based on population, income, commuting and other data, then we need to, ummm, collect those data? Two proposed amendments — one, to the tune of $110 million, offered by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA); the other, for $3 million, by Rep. Jerry McNerney, (D-CA) — shift funds from the census programs to the ever-popular Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program in the Department of Justice. Now, I support the work of our men and women in blue as much as the next politician (my father was a police commissioner, for heaven’s sake). But isn’t it a little ironic that applications for COPS grants require data on poverty from the (you guessed it!) American Community Survey.

With a similar flash of foresight, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) stole $12 million from the census account to improve NOAA’s forecasting of severe weather events. Yes, our hearts go out to victims of tornadoes. But where do Oklahomans think their civic agencies get the data for disaster preparedness, evacuation and response? You don’t have to answer that, because if the House votes today to make ACS response voluntary, the Census Bureau might not be able to publish reliable data for about half of the Sooner State’s counties.

By the time I threw in the towel and turned in for the night, the House had cut $118 million from the Census Bureau’s Periodic Census and Programs account, with another $15 million facing roll-call votes in the morning. That’s on top of the $105 million (9 percent) the Appropriations Committee already cut from the bureau’s $1.2 billion budget request. I’m not great at math, but me thinks there is nothing left of the $212 million ramp-up in funding for the 2020 Census.

I think Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) finally captured the insanity — inadvertently, no doubt — of the slow but steady draining of the Census Bureau’s piggybank, when he started talking about the importance of counting salmon, to explain why he wanted $3 million more for fisheries management. (For the record, Chairman Wolf finally put his foot down, and the McDermott amendment went down on a voice vote.) We may not be able to count people in 2020, but we sure as heck want to know how many salmon are swimming upstream. Long live the Republic!