by Terri Ann Lowenthal
Last spring, the census world was in turmoil.
First, the venerable House Committee on Appropriations voted (H.R. 5326) to slash $92 million from the Census Bureau’s FY2013 budget request ($970.4M), most ($85.9M) of which would affect core programs — including the American Community Survey (ACS), decennial census planning and the quinquennial (I love saying that word!) Economic Census — in the Periodic Censuses and Programs account. Then, the full House of Representatives decided Americans could “just say no” to the ACS by making response optional instead of mandatory. This seemingly innocuous change would reduce mail response by 20 percent (more for some population subgroups) and boost survey costs by more than a third ($60-$70 million), according to a 2003 test. (For the benefit of legislators with short-term memories, it was Congress that mandated the test.)
But wait, to heck with having a choice, lawmakers said; let’s just scrap the whole survey! And while we’re at it, let’s cut an additional $24 million from Periodic Censuses… which left the Census Bureau to wonder if it could pull off the 2012 Economic Census and ACS (even if Congress let it) at all.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Congress can make some dubious decisions. But talk about biting the hand that feeds you! According to a Brookings Institution analysis, lawmakers allocated $416 billion in federal grants, direct payments and loans based on data derived directly or indirectly from the ACS. Call me obtuse, but how would Congress distribute that money if the data suddenly disappeared? Throw darts at a map of states and counties? Hold a highway-money lottery? (And don’t tell me that not allocating those funds is a golden opportunity to reduce federal spending; when was the last time a member of Congress turned down funds to pave a highway or assist firefighters in his or her district?)
Over in the “gentleman’s club” (clear throat), appropriators managed to stay calm, proposing a FY2013 funding level in line with the president’s request. The full Senate couldn’t quite muster the strength to take up the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (S. 2323) before lawmakers raced home for the November elections. But House and Senate negotiators are now working to set final budget numbers for the Census Bureau before a temporary FY2013 funding bill (the Continuing Resolution, which extended agency operations at FY2012 funding levels) runs out on March 25. Let’s hope House members awake from a nine-month slumber with renewed sagacity and see the error of their penny-wise, pound-foolish ways.
Meanwhile, the president will send his FY2014 budget blueprint to Congress no earlier than March 4, at least one month later than a toothless law requires. But not to worry, there’s lots of intervening excitement brewing. The so-called “sequester” of the FY2013 budget — the product of legislators’ failure to actually agree on budget numbers for the fiscal year that started many moons ago — will take effect on March 1 unless Congress… well, agrees on something. If it doesn’t, federal agencies will have to cough up $85 billion, amounting roughly to a 5 percent across-the-board cut for non-defense domestic discretionary programs.
This week, President Obama challenged Congress to avoid that consequence by specifying funding cuts (coupled with revenue increases, which Republicans aren’t eager to embrace, but I’m not here to argue fiscal policy) before the budget coach turns into a pumpkin. What will happen between now and then is crystal-ball material, but Commerce Department Inspector General Todd J. Zinser had some wise observations for Congress at a Senate hearing last summer: “[T]he Census Bureau must analyze the 2020 decennial [census] design alternatives and make a decision by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2014… Decisions made during this decade’s early years will be critical for setting the course for how well the 2020 count is performed and how much it will ultimately cost.” With the Economic Census off the launch pad, the remaining two core programs — the ACS and the 2020 census — will feel the greatest budget squeeze absent sufficient funding for the Census Bureau. And the nation will be headed for a data vacuum or an expensive, incomplete decennial count, or both.
Are you still with me? Good, because it seems like we’ve gone from last spring’s mess to complete budget disarray. Good luck trying to keep up with this winter’s mayhem!
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Correction: My last blog post mentioned a Census Dress Rehearsal in 2018. Historically, the Census Bureau has conducted a dry-run in two or three locations in the year ending in “8,” to evaluate operations in a census-like environment. But alas, there will be no such walk-through this decade. Former Census Director Robert Groves significantly retooled the planning phase of the census for 2020, in order to contain costs and take advantage of other opportunities (including using the American Community Survey as a test bed) to evaluate and tweak components of the census design. I apologize for the error — maybe I’m just getting nostalgic?