Better Late Than Never? Inching Our Way To A 2014 Census Budget

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Breaking news: Republicans and Democrats in Congress have finally agreed upon something! That would be a budget blueprint for the current (FY2014) and next (FY2015) fiscal years, joyfully named the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

So, what does this agreement mean for Census Bureau funding, everyone breathlessly asks me? Uh, how the heck should I know? Seriously, though, the holiday respite from partisan gridlock is just the start of the overdue funding process for fiscal year 2014, whose clock started ticking on October 1. The Census Bureau, like most federal agencies, has been making do with last year’s funding level, squeezed as that was by sequestration and across-the-board spending cuts. And then there’s the uncertainty of not knowing how much you’ll be able to spend this year — sort of like figuring out how much you can afford to spend on holiday gifts when your boss won’t tell you what your annual salary will be until two months after Christmas.

Did I mention the two-week government shutdown, occurring just when a 2020 Census field test was supposed to start in Philadelphia?

Anyway, the reason I’m still in the dark is that appropriators now must negotiate final spending bills for FY2014, within budget agreement parameters. The current temporary funding measure (at FY2013 levels) runs out on January 15, but when you’re already more than three months late, heck, a deadline is just… well, whatever.

To their credit, House and Senate appropriators passed their respective versions of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bills (H.R. 2787/S. 1329) earlier this year. The Senate committee — while issuing stern warnings about census costs, and planning and budget transparency (S. Rpt. 113-78) — generously allocated the president’s request of $982.5 million for the Census Bureau. Its House counterpart — apparently confusing the cyclical census up ramp with the down ramp — doled out $844.7 million, $44.5 million below FY2013 funding. The final number will lie somewhere between those markedly (and remarkably) divergent visions of how best to plan for a census.

The budget deal sets a $1.012 trillion cap on discretionary (that is, non-mandatory) spending, sort of splitting the difference between the House- and Senate-passed budget ceilings. Essentially, it restores almost two-thirds of the non-defense sequestration cuts that would have taken effect in FY2014, absent the bipartisan hug. Appropriators, who have a little more wiggle room absent full sequestration, will decide who gets how much of the discretionary pie. Let’s wish upon a Christmas star for an early reprieve in the new year.

It’s time to hit the gas and head up the ramp a little faster. Thorough, on-time research and testing of significant reforms to the census process, and a robust American Community Survey (which also serves as a test-bed for the 2020 Census), are riding on the outcome.

Losing Sleep (While Counting Sheep)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Census stakeholders, my head is spinning with thoughts of 2020 census planning.

Sure, you might think the next census is too far in the future to keep you up at night. (Plus, I bet most of you would rather let me do the worrying.) But let me quote the Census Bureau’s new counter-in-chief, John Thompson, who told a House subcommittee at a September 11 hearing, “budget uncertainty is causing significant concerns for the 2020 census program as we enter that period during which it is crucial to conduct tests so that we can begin applying new technologies and methods … We have already delayed planned research and testing activities to later years … We cannot further delay critical research that will help us make critical design decisions for those systems.”

Let’s stipulate to one shared goal: The 2020 census can’t look like the 2010 census. For one thing, the nation can’t afford the $30 billion price tag of repeating an outdated census design. Equally important, the way we communicate with each other has changed rapidly.

Automation is the buzzword for 2020, but despite the fact that many of us live on our gadgets, a cyber-census (you heard it here first!) isn’t as simple as it might seem. Will data be secure if census-takers bring their own devices (BYOD)? Can we design a questionnaire that people can navigate as easily on a smartphone as on a computer and that works across all operating systems (the ones we use now and the ones that Google, Microsoft and Apple have yet to dream up)? Will people welcome emails, text messages and cell phone calls from the Census Bureau (where did they get my information — from the NSA?)? And what about people who want to respond online without a unique code tying them to a specific address? The challenges are broad and deep.

There could be significant savings (up to $2 billion, the agency says) if the bureau tapped into demographic, housing and geographic information already in the hands of other government agencies. These administrative records could, potentially, eliminate the need for a universal sweep of the nation’s addresses before the census starts; identify vacant homes, to avoid costly follow-up; determine the best days and times to call or visit unresponsive homes; identify households that might have neglected to report every resident; and yes, even to add people to the count without knocking on their door.

But the Census Bureau must work out separate deals with each federal agency and state holding useful records; much of this data-sharing could require changes in federal or state laws. And each dataset has its strengths and weaknesses — Medicaid records, for example, do not have names or street addresses, only social security numbers and birth dates — which could require linking one set of records to another.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the Census Bureau needs money to figure all of this out in time. The bureau can execute a fundamentally redesigned 2020 census for the 2010 census price tag (plus inflation), Director Thompson says. Invest now, save later — that’s the bottom line.

So let’s review where things stand for the fiscal year (FY2014) that begins today. For starters, we can flip the calendar back to FY2013 for a while. The Census Bureau must make do with last year’s funding level, which was 13 percent below its budget request, while Congress figures out how to … ummm … get its act together. Then we hold our breath while lawmakers decide whether to slide backwards another $45 million (courtesy of House appropriators; H.R. 2787), give the agency most of what it needs (thanks to far-sighted Senate appropriators; S. 1329), or settle on some amount in between.

The census is a 10-year process, a cyclical activity that starts small and builds to the grand finale of enumerating every household in a vast, diverse nation. There is a ramp-up to that denouement, one that starts modestly and escalates as we hurtle towards the “zero” year. But the direction, once planning starts, has to be up.

Wikipedia describes a “ramp up” as the period between product development, and maximum capacity utilization, characterized by product and process experimentation and improvements. Sounds like a logical business practice, right? (Think of the time and investment in research it takes to bring new prescription drugs to the market.) You would think lawmakers would want the Census Bureau to operate like an efficient corporation. But long-term fiscal planning isn’t Congress’ strong suit, now, is it?

The Census Bureau needs $245 million in FY2014 to keep 2020 census planning on track; the House bill cuts that amount by more than a third ($91 million). Already delayed by a year are all of the tests scheduled for this year and next; some tests have been cancelled. The bureau has pushed back the field test of the 2020 Census form to FY2016, which is getting uncomfortably close to the April 1, 2017, and April 1, 2018, deadlines for submitting topics and questions, respectively, to Congress. Perhaps most troubling, the Census Bureau won’t nail down a design framework until late FY2015, a year behind schedule, leaving less time to develop systems and operations.

Did I mention that the next census starts in less than six years? The Census Bureau can do a lot of things, but it cannot stop the clock. I bet Director Thompson is having a few sleepless nights, too.

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!)

Somebody Call A Tow Truck!

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

In my last blog post, I lamented a looming “collision” as U.S. House appropriators kept driving the wrong way – downhill and backwards – on the up ramp to the 2020 census, slashing the Census Bureau’s FY2014 budget request by $120+ million, which would leave the agency with $44.5 million less than its inadequate FY2013 budget. Without early investment in census research, testing and development, Congress could be spending a fortune to pull the 2020 headcount out of a ditch in a few short years.

Fortunately, the Senate has dispatched the highway patrol!

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill (S. 1329), allocating the full amount the Obama Administration requested for the Census Bureau: $982.5 million. Sure, the committee once again dipped into the agency’s Working Capital Fund to get to that level, but the $10 million grab is small compared to previous raids on the WCF, and I will not look a gift horse in the mouth today. (See my Feb. 27, 2012, post for a quick tutorial on the WCF.)

I think Senate lawmakers are starting to grasp the long-range picture. The committee’s explanatory report (Senate Rpt. 113-78) says the budget request “suggests that the Census Bureau intends to reduce the 2020 Census costs to 2010 Census levels by finding ways to reduce door-to-door operations, using the Internet to solicit responses, and using scalable technology, such as elastic agency-wide IT systems that can expand for the 2020 Census and then return to normal operations tempo.” The committee wistfully mentions the possibility of spending less than the 2000 census, without adjusting for inflation, but we can forgive this momentary lapse in sanity, although it clearly yearns for yesteryear with later references to spending “less than the 2010 census” in 2020. Nevertheless, Senators seem to understand that the bureau can’t get from point A to point B, and accomplish the significant reforms Congress is seeking, without an investment in the groundwork that needs to be done.

House appropriators, on the other hand, want to have their cake and eat it, too. Their $153.5 million allocation for 2020 Census planning — $91 million below the president’s request — “underscores the Committee’s views that research and testing efforts are vital to ensuring that the 2020 Census is the most accurate and cost effective decennial yet.” We just don’t want to pay for those efforts. The committee asked for a schedule of all work “critical to the success of the 2020 Decennial Census,” including the cost of each activity “to better account for the cost effects of possible schedule slippage.” And then we’ll take you to task for falling behind schedule, even though we haven’t given you enough money to stay on track. The funding chiefs also want the agency to create shared and reusable IT services (“as a way to economize”!), continue developing a mobile computing infrastructure, implement a comprehensive information security program in accordance with in-depth GAO recommendations, and consult with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to ensure compliance with security standards. And please figure out how to do all of this vital work even though we cut your requested budget by nearly 40 percent. If the House has its way, Congress is going to need a super-size tow truck! (The House Commerce funding bill allocates $225 million for the American Community Survey — the most cost effective test-bed available for the 2020 census — $17 million less than the administration’s request.)

Will lawmakers beat the fiscal year clock to enact a final Commerce spending bill by midnight on September 30? Let’s consider: the House will be in session 17 more days until the FY2013 coach turns into a pumpkin; the Senate will be in session 26 days. Ummm… I think I see a temporary spending resolution in my crystal ball, which could leave the Census Bureau spinning its wheels in a ditch for a while longer (at the paltry current year funding levels), while the House and Senate try to come to grips collectively with the concept of ramping up for the nation’s largest peacetime undertaking.

Note: The House FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill and report numbers are not available as of this writing, but both documents are available on the House Appropriations Committee website.