February 2017 Update

On February 27, the U.S. Senate expects to vote to confirm Texas businessman Wilbur Ross as the Secretary of Commerce. The Commerce Department has direct supervisory authority over the U.S. Census Bureau. In his January 18 confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Mr. Ross noted that “I may be the only Secretary of Commerce that was a U.S. Census taker… so I have some personal experience with the Census, a very important function within the Department of Commerce.”

Mr. Ross said in his opening statement before the committee that “like many other business people across the United States, I have been a consumer of the data and information the Department provides on a periodic basis.”

Mr. Ross also addressed the continuing congressional underfunding of the 2020 Census by observing that it has been “hard getting commitments for the appropriations that Census really needs for its mission.”

Finally, in response to a written question from Senator Ben Nelson (D-FL), Mr. Ross said “I look forward to being fully briefed on the American Community Survey (ACS). I would like to work with the Census Bureau, the Congress, and the public to address any concerns and make the ACS as effective as possible in providing full, fair and accurate census data.”

Mr. Ross took no position at the hearing on whether participation in the ACS should be mandatory or voluntary, as some in Congress have suggested.

Mulvaney Confirmed as OMB Director

On February 16, the U.S. Senate confirmed former Congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the office responsible for developing the Administration’s annual budget request. While Mr. Mulvaney’s position on funding for the Census Bureau was not discussed during his confirmation hearings, in comments before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in June of last year, then-Congressman Mulvaney was highly critical of the American Community Survey (ACS). Specifically, he called the ACS “too lengthy” and characterized some questions “an invasion of privacy.”

GAO Labels 2020 Census Planning “High Risk”

On February 15, in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) labeled planning for the 2020 decennial census as high risk.

The GAO asserted that “the U.S. Census Bureau plans a number of innovations, including technology systems, for the 2020 Census. These innovations and other challenges jeopardize the Bureau’s ability to deliver a cost-effective census. GAO has made 30 suggestions in this area since 2014, but only six have been fully implemented.”

In follow-up testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Census Bureau Director John Thompson disputed that the 2020 Census planning process was off track, noting the complexity of the process. He said that both the 2000 and 2010 censuses had also been labeled “high risk” by GAO. Further, in response to a question from the committee’s Senator Carper, Director Thompson noted that underfunding of the decennial budget was a major concern.

A Washington Post editorial this week captured the findings of both the GAO report and the Thompson testimony.

FY 2017 Budget Stuck in Limbo, FY 2018 Probably Delayed

The Census Bureau, along with most of the federal government, is currently funded through a continuing resolution (CR), which expires on April 28. As part of the CR, the Census Bureau was granted a modified funding anomaly, allowing the agency to spend money at a faster, but not higher, rate during the course of the CR. The uncertainty of a final FY 2017 funding resolution has compelled the Bureau to suspend and postpone several initiatives, including several critical 2017 field tests and the opening of three regional centers. The bureau may need to make more difficult choices if the FY 2017 funding situation is not resolved.

With respect to Fiscal Year 2018, the process has been delayed because of the change in Administration. The new Trump Administration was expected to submit a less detailed budget by mid-March with a more extensive budget being released in April. It is not clear how much detail the initial March submission will contain regarding the Census Bureau. Fiscal Year 2018 is an important year in which the Census Bureau will be conducting an End-To-End Test (also known as a dress rehearsal) of all census operations in three select sites (Pierce County, WA; Providence, RI; and Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, WV).

New Member Lobby Day

Earlier this month, five separate teams of Census Project stakeholders visited more than 30 offices of new members of Congress in both the House and the Senate. The purpose of the visits to congressional offices was to orient the newly elected policymakers about the importance of the 2020 Census and the American Community Survey.