By 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.