Radio Silence

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

It must have been spring fever. In a flurry of activity in May and June, House and Senate appropriators dutifully considered and approved their respective bills to fund Commerce Department (and many other) agencies next year, including a reader favorite: the U.S. Census Bureau. The House of Representatives went one step further, burning the midnight oil to pass the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) over a two-day period.

But now it’s mid-July. You’ve been sitting at the edge of your seats, waiting anxiously for the next episode of the Census Bureau funding soap opera, ready to swing into action to save 2020 Census innovations and reliable ACS data from death by a thousand budget cuts. Or maybe you haven’t been thinking about this at all; a good book at the beach sounds like way more fun. But on the off chance you’re wondering about the radio silence since the Senate stood poised to tackle its version of the Commerce spending bill (S. 2437) more than a month ago, let me fill you in what you missed. Nothing.

In fact, the Senate couldn’t even muster the votes to start debate on the bill. The minority leader balked over an issue, completely unrelated to the bill, that no one quite recalls anymore. (I think it had something to do with coal.) Now, everyone seems to have thrown their hands up in the air and started counting down the days until a blissfully long August recess, after which it will be time to wipe the mothballs off the ineradicable Continuing Funding Resolution.

And here’s where you need to put your book aside and roll out of your lounge chair. Because if you thought the House’s $238 million raid on the Census Bureau’s budget spelled deep trouble for 2020 Census planning and other core surveys, think about the consequences of no funding increase at all for the nation’s premier cyclical program. As the name implies, a continuing resolution (CR) funds federal agencies at this year’s levels. Not exactly an ideal situation for a 10-year activity that must “ramp up” to stay on schedule, with immutable deadlines looming. Chief among those are required reports to Congress on the topics (April 1, 2017) and questions (April 1, 2018) for the 2020 Census (including the American Community Survey, the modern version of the census long form); Census Day (April 1, 2020); population totals used to reapportion the House of Representatives (December 31, 2020); and detailed population data to redraw congressional districts (March 31, 2021). Oh, the irony.

The Census Bureau, already behind schedule due to previous budgets cuts and funding delays, has four major 2020 Census field tests planned for FY 2015. Under the microscope will be cost-saving innovations and questionnaire updates: the feasibility of replacing universal pre-census address canvassing with targeted updating; using automation, real-time data and administrative records to manage and streamline costly follow-up with unresponsive households; new strategies to boost self-response, especially on the Internet, as well as methods for pre-registration and processing electronic responses that lack unique identifiers; revised questions on race and ethnicity; assistance for non-English speakers; and improving estimates of mail, online and telephone response. By the end of 2015, the Census Bureau must lock in a design for the next census and begin systems and operational development.

What to do, people? Time for what Washington-insiders quaintly call an “anomaly,” more easily understood as an exception to flat-line funding in the CR. Without one, either the 2015 census tests will start falling like dominos, jeopardizing the reforms needed to modernize the headcount, or the bureau will have to scale back other surveys to pay for them. The 2020 Census isn’t the only cyclical program at risk; planning starts next year for the quinquennial (still love that word!) 2017 Economic Census.

An anomaly for the Census Bureau in the all-but-inevitable FY 2015 CR seems like a no-brainer. Whether Congress will come to its census… er, senses… remains to be seen.

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.