Back to the Census Future

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

I have snapped out of my daydream of a Trump-like path to the 2020 Census, where everything is easy and will end up just fine because, you know, we’ll get great (not stupid!) people and take an amazing census. A headline blaring from the front page of the The New York Times woke me up.

Cut In Budget May Hamper 2000 Census

Oh, wait. Wrong year; wrong census. That was 1995! Yes, it’s census déjà vu all over again. No wonder I can’t sleep at night.

Twenty years later, Congress once again has failed to grasp the concept of ‘invest now, save later.’ This would be the same Congress that wants government to run more like a business: to think and act proactively; to take bold action to contain costs without sacrificing quality.

Except some lawmakers seem to think that the Census Bureau can wave a magic wand and change the game plan it’s followed since 1970. Generate administrative records to replace more costly door-to-door visits! Produce materials in more than 50 languages! Conjure up a nimble communications plan to convince every household in the world’s melting pot to participate! Build a secure IT infrastructure that can handle 8 million hits a day and process 140+ million cases! Cue the light saber, because that’s what we’ll need when the money isn’t there.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives decided it believes in fairy godmothers. The Appropriations Committee capped Fiscal Year 2016 spending on 2020 Census planning at $400 million, less than two-thirds of the President’s $663 million request. Even that was too much for the full House, which cut another $117 million from the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, with a significant chunk presumably eating away further at 2020 Census funding.

Senate appropriators were marginally more generous, increasing the Periodics account by $22 million over Fiscal Year 2015. That would be for the entire account, which also includes the 2017 Economic Census, American Community Survey, and vital activities that support the census, such as the geographic framework and enterprise-wide data processing system. I’m not good at math, but I don’t think that leaves much of a ramp-up for the 2020 Census,

There is some good news, though. The FY2016 budget process broke down completely after that, with the White House and congressional Democrats objecting to the spending caps (sequestration) put in place by a grand budget deal two years ago. (You know you’re living in a parallel universe when Congress’ inability to fund the federal government on time is something to cheer about.) Congress bought time with a temporary spending bill (Continuing Resolution) that runs through December 11th.

Last week, lawmakers and the President finally brokered a deal that boosts overall spending on non-defense discretionary programs in FY2016 by $33 billion. Appropriators must now divvy up that windfall among the twelve annual funding bills (including the Commerce, Justice, and Science measure that covers the Census Bureau) and agree on final budgets for agencies and programs.

Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a joint subcommittee hearing this week on the progress of 2020 Census planning, with a focus on IT systems. Lawmakers are spooked by the ghost of the Census Bureau’s costly failure to equip census takers with mobile devices in the 2010 Census, and they want assurances that a vastly larger plan to automate the 2020 Census won’t fall flat.

But I am equally worried by what I didn’t hear at Tuesday’s session: how will sweeping reforms to the census process address the historic, disproportionate undercount of people of color, young children, limited English proficient and low-income households (both rural and urban)? No one asked a question that would illuminate the answer, although a few Members highlighted the need for adequate funding to prepare for the census.

The Census Bureau has a lot of work to do — and a lot of questions to answer —between now and late summer of 2017, when the 2018 End-to-End Readiness Test (with an April 1, 2018 “Census Day”) begins. Without sufficient funding, it will focus its efforts on building a basic framework for 2020 — IT systems, the mailing package and questionnaire, office locations, reasonable address list improvements. Elements that get to the heart of a fair count — targeted advertising; language assistance; partnerships with trusted voices in hard to count communities; thorough evaluation of administrative records; even development of statistical tools to measure accuracy — will continue to get short shrift.

There will be a lot of competition for that extra money in the Omnibus FY2016 spending bill.

Congress has a second chance to show that it cares not just about a cost-effective census, but an accurate one. Let’s hope it uses that opportunity wisely.

Postscript: O Canada! In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party majority in Parliament decided to let Canadians opt-out of the quinquennial (still love that word!) census long form, the equivalent of our American Community Survey (ACS). When the voluntary 2011 National Household Survey failed to produce reliable data for a quarter of all places and some key socio-economic indicators (such as household income), data users — from business leaders, to municipal governments, to researchers — were wringing their hands.

Earlier this year, Conservatives blocked a bill sponsored by Liberal Party MP Ted Hsu to restore the mandatory long form. But now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party vowed to restore the mandatory long form, if elected. And wouldn’t you know, within days of taking office, Trudeau did just that, with two Cabinet Ministers making the announcement today. The Toronto Globe and Mail even reported that the former Conservative Party MP who pushed the voluntary long form now says he “would have done it differently” and asked more thoughtful questions in trying to determine how best to protect privacy and ensure data security. Are you listening, U.S. Congress?

Speaking of the Census…

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director Terri Ann Lowenthal

Daniel Webster is running to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Not the Daniel Webster who served in the House and the Senate and as Secretary of State. (He died in a tragic horse accident in 1852.) No, this would be the one from Florida who sponsored, in 2012, a successful amendment to eliminate the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). At least the Senate had the good sense not to go along with the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to policymaking. The House Freedom Caucus, which takes credit for pushing Speaker John Boehner to resign, is backing Rep. Webster for the job.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the Census Bureau’s activities, also wants to wield the chamber’s gavel. Rep. Chaffetz assumed his committee’s top post earlier this year, but he’s had a keen interest in the census ever since Utah failed to gain a fourth congressional district after the 2000 population count. That unfortunate outcome, the congressman believed, was due to the Census Bureau’s failure to count Mormon missionaries working abroad when the census was taken.

Rep. Chaffetz co-authored a bill in 2009 (with fellow Utah Rep. Rob Bishop) to require the inclusion of all Americans living abroad in the census. (The Census Bureau includes overseas members of the armed forces and federal employees in the state population totals used for congressional apportionment; the count is done using agency administrative records.) The bill didn’t make it out of committee, possibly because a 2004 congressionally mandated test of an overseas count was cut short after the Government Accountability Office determined that it would be impossible to get an accurate count of private American citizens abroad and that the cost was prohibitive.

Rep. Chaffetz also proposed replacing census takers with postal workers for the 2010 Census. He told the Salt Lake Tribune that there could be a “postal holiday” so that letter carriers could go door-to-door counting people who didn’t mail back their questionnaires. I think lots of households and businesses might start to rebel after a few weeks with no mail. Because, you know, the follow-up operation to track down unresponsive households takes more than a day.

And then there’s Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), who chaired the Oversight committee before Rep. Chaffetz assumed the top spot. The congressman said he’s thinking about throwing his hat in the ring for Speaker. I know that Rep. Issa cares a lot about an accurate census because in 2008, he sponsored a House resolution “demanding [that the] 2010 Census count every living person in the United States,” according to a June 11, 2008, press release. Fifty lawmakers, all of them Republicans, cosponsored Issa’s resolution (H.Res. 1262, 110th Congress), which the House dutifully passed in September 2008.

I’m sure the Census Bureau was planning to do everything it could to produce an accurate population count, even if members of Congress weren’t so demanding. But I’m relieved that Rep. Issa clarified the “living person” part.

Depending on how the thrilling Speaker’s race turns out, Congress could be demanding that the Census Bureau send postal workers to count Americans living (or living Americans!) in Chile in 2020. Or something like that.

The original Rep. Daniel Webster, by the way, was on the ballot for President in 1852, for the Know Nothing Party. (Yes, there was such a political party, formally known as the American Party, which nominated that well-known president, Millard Filmore.) We could all become modern-day Know Nothings if the current Speaker-hopeful Webster prevails in his quest to axe the ACS.

Mid Life-Cycle Crisis

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

We’re halfway through the decade, which means that 99.9 percent of Americans are not spending their waking hours worrying about the nation’s next constitutionally mandated population canvass. (A similar percentage applies to esteemed members of the national legislature, most of whom couldn’t put planning for the census lower on their list of priorities if they tried. Rep. Ted Poe, however, apparently is losing a lot sleep over the census-related American Community Survey, which he is sure will be the death of liberty and the republic.)

Let’s face it: Congress doesn’t do long-term planning well. The 2020 Census is far beyond the horizon for most lawmakers. Although, strangely, the same subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau doesn’t seem to have trouble grasping, let’s say, the long haul required to put a manned spacecraft on Mars. Maybe that’s because the Johnson Space Center is in the neighborhood of the panel’s chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). There are tangible benefits to cranking up NASA’s budget, like jobs and contracting opportunities. I thought the Census Bureau was on to something when it announced that one of its two 2016 census field tests will be in Harris County, TX (the other site is Los Angeles County). But that didn’t stop the chairman from slashing the President’s FY2016 budget request of $663 million for 2020 Census planning by more than 30 percent, and then standing by while the full House cut another $117 million from the Periodic Censuses and Programs account, lest anyone think the census really mattered.

The Senate Appropriations Committee took a stab at a more rationale approach. It lauded the value of ACS data for decision-making. It acknowledged the early planning efforts for the 2020 count as “conscientious.” But then, whack!, down came the budget knife, potentially taking 15 percent of the ACS sample and timely development of 2020 Census IT systems, operational infrastructure, and promotion activities with it. The committee allocated a meager funding bump of $22 million for the entire Periodics account, despite the President’s proposed $320 million ramp-up just for 2020 Census planning. Committee Democrats called the funding level “irresponsible.” (The full Senate has not considered the Commerce Appropriations bill.)

Census managers seem remarkably calm about the whole funding crisis. They speak in soothing, measured voices and sound like civilian versions of military commanders planning a major tactical campaign. (Which they are, by the way. Trust me: there will be a war room at the Census Bureau in 2020.) Presentations at the 2020 Census Quarterly Management Review on July 10th were replete with impressive descriptions of the arduous, intricate planning required for a decennial census. The jargon is mind-boggling to a layperson, replete with phrases like “resource loaded” and “baselining the operational plan” and a “slide deck library” for each operation and “workload optimization.” Put it all together, and you’ve got the workings of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization.

Maybe it’s just too much for Congress to wrap its head around. Maybe they’d rather wing it, Trump style. (Speaking of The Donald, let us pause to contemplate that the next president will preside over the 2020 count.) Given the lack of meaningful congressional oversight so far, and resistance to paying for a robust planning process, we might have to take a few cues from the Trump playbook to get through this decennial obstacle course.

Forget the complexity of operations that have to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle — or two or three jigsaw puzzles layered on top of each other. Just “deal with it.” Don’t worry: we’re going to get GREAT people who know what they’re doing! Concerned about the dearth of detailed race and ethnicity data in administrative records that might replace door-to-door visits to unresponsive households, the absence of which could hamper enforcement of civil rights laws? Too bad, people, because we’re tired of being politically correct.

What about census accuracy? If you’re plowing ahead Trump style, the numbers might be squishy. Case in point: the candidate claimed that 15,000 people attended his rally in a Phoenix convention center that holds 2,000, with fire marshals permitting up to 4,000. But, hey, who’s counting? (Pun intended.) Anyway, people in every state are incredible, and we love them (and they love us!), so we’re sure we’ll find all of them.

Why fork over money for the painstaking research and testing required to evaluate how the digital divide will affect Internet response rates, the ability of targeted address canvassing to spot housing changes in rural and dense inner-city communities, the workability of the operational control system across different electronic platforms, the materials needed to reach Americans whose primary language is not English? Trust me: we’ll get GREAT people who know what they’re doing! Believe me; this is going to be the GREATEST census this country has ever seen!

It’s going to be amazing. Heck, maybe we can get Mexico to pay for it.

Down the Drain

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

Dear American Community Survey (ACS) data users:

Have you recovered yet from the loss of the 3-year estimates, which offered reliable data for places with populations of 20,000 or more, often capturing trends that one-year estimates for larger places (65,000 population and above) can’t document as well? (Just to refresh your memories, we can chalk up the elimination of that dataset to budget cuts in the current fiscal year.)

I hope so. Now, get yourself another stiff drink, because the path Congress is following for next year’s budget (Fiscal Year 2016) could set the survey back even further.

Let’s start with the House of Representatives. Last month, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) rallied his colleagues to turn the nation’s premier survey into an optional exercise, lest the government ask too much of its citizens in furtherance of democracy. By “rallied,” I mean his amendment to make ACS response voluntary passed the chamber at 10:37 p.m. with only the appropriations subcommittee chairman and ranking member on hand to listen or muster an “aye” or “no” (otherwise known as a voice vote).

The congressman’s proposal was no surprise. Over the past month, he’d taken to news outlets in his Houston district to rail against “government overreach at its worst.” The ACS question on flush toilets in the home really rankled him, so he will be tickled to know that the question is going down the drain next year.

This is the third time the House approved a “voluntary response” amendment to the Census Bureau’s annual funding bill. Let’s hope it’s not the charm. Because based on Canada’s recent experience with a voluntary census “long form” (the equivalent of our ACS), the result would be plummeting response rates, significantly higher costs, and loss of reliable data for small and less populous areas, as well as small population groups. Canada couldn’t produce data for a quarter of its places after the 2011 National Household Survey.

But maybe senators will save the day! In fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee seems to rather like the ACS. In its report on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill (H.R. 2578), the panel was full of praise for the nation’s premier survey. That show of support apparently was enough to deter Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) from pressing ahead with his amendment to let Americans opt-out of the ACS (he “offered and withdrew” it), saying only that he hoped House and Senate negotiators would resolve the issue down the road. In other words, he hasn’t given up the fight.

A shout-out to CJS Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) is in order, for seeing the light on the importance of the ACS. But don’t raise a toast to the Senate just yet. Because appropriators weren’t in the mood to put their money where their mouths are.

Yes, data for “small towns and rural areas” are important! Yes, the ACS is “often the primary or only source of data for States, localities, and Federal agencies” on many policy topics! But, we regret to inform you that we just don’t have the money to sustain the ACS sample size, which is necessary to produce high-quality estimates for neighborhoods, small counties, American Indian reservations, race and ethnicity subgroups, veterans, people with disabilities.

Okay, the committee didn’t actually say that. But cutting the Periodic Censuses and Programs account budget request by 30 percent is bound to weaken the survey significantly, at least for the foreseeable future, while the bureau scrambles to research ways to bring down data collection costs. Those 5-year estimates, which average enough data to produce reliable estimates for small areas? They just might turn into 6-year estimates, making the measurements less timely and stable. The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), summed up the proposed funding level in one word: irresponsible.

House appropriators, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to let us know how much they dislike that “burdensome” survey. In fact, majority members were downright “disappointed” that the Census Bureau dropped only one question (medical or business office on property) from the survey so far, as part of an in-depth content review; they directed the agency to find other nonessential questions to ax post haste.

Then, they drove the point home with a 20 percent cut to the ACS budget, capping spending for next year at $200 million. And that was before the full House slashed another $117 million from the account covering the ACS and 2020 Census planning. “Completely shortsighted” was how the committee minority described the Census Bureau’s funding level, saying the data are needed to “better understand and predict changes in the American economy and the health of American communities, which in turn helps inform good public policy.” Imagine that.

People, I don’t know if you are shaking your heads, throwing your hands up in the air, or heading back to the liquor cabinet right about now. But maybe you should whip out your laptops and fire off a message to your elected representatives, letting them know that plunging the nation into data darkness will not enhance their reputations as enlightened lawmakers.

The Lows (and the Highs)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I had to cut short my fishing trip last week to buy a new laptop. I am telling you this odd news for a reason, census fans. So please stick with me for a minute.

I am a technological Luddite. The thought of a new gadget or software program gives me heart palpitations. So yes, I had a meltdown in the Apple store, as I struggled to understand how to migrate the information from my old device to the new one. (“Migration:” Isn’t that a demographic trend that the U.S. Census Bureau measures?) I just need my Word documents and emails, I practically sobbed to the infinitely patient, but too-technically-savvy-for-me, sales person. And no interruptions in my work flow, because the Senate Appropriations Committee is taking up the Census Bureau’s FY 2016 funding bill. But I digress.

Back home, I started to regain my composure as the nice man from Microsoft remotely installed word processing software on my shiny new toy. And then I got to thinking about how fast the world is changing, and how hard it is to keep up with advances in social media and technology and new ways of snagging the services and goods we need. My age is getting the best of me, for sure.

But I also started thinking about some things in this world that are timeless. Take the U.S. census, for example. Sure, the way we go about it and the information we collect reflect, in the truest sense of the word, the transformation of society. But the goal remains fundamental to preserving our representative democracy: a fair and accurate count of everyone living in the U.S. (and where they live) on Census Day, every 10 years. We haven’t missed one yet, although heaven knows the census has missed millions of us over time. In fact, complaining about a census undercount is as old as President George Washington himself.

Speaking of George, it was the Founding Fathers who had the bright idea to vest the legislature with responsibility for overseeing the census. I wonder if James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are rolling over in their graves right about now. Because Congress (or, at least some of its members) apparently has decided that it can’t pay for a census that counts everyone in 2020. The proof, regrettably, is in the budget numbers.

In late May, the House of Representatives slashed President Obama’s FY 2016 budget request for the 2020 Census by more than one-third, approving the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) by a mostly party-line vote (242-183). Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee decided it also doesn’t want to spend the money to plan a proper census. Its version of the bill increases the account covering the 2020 Census by just $22 million over current year funding. To put that paltry sum in perspective, the president requested a ramp-up of $317 million for the 2020 Census alone. (The Periodic Censuses and Programs account also includes the American Community Survey and 2017 Economic Census, as well as key activities that support these cyclical programs, such as building the address list and digital mapping system.) You do the math. Because I can’t find enough money for the Census Bureau to pull off the census Congress wants. (Although we could cancel the entire ACS and Economic Census to save money. Please don’t fall off your chairs.)

Congress has said it wants to spend less on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 count (roughly $13 billion). It has instructed the Census Bureau to figure out how to offer and boost Internet response, use data gathered through other government programs to reduce the paper-pencil-brick-and-mortar-footprint, and contain costs. In response, the Census Bureau has embarked on an ambitious program of research, testing and development to bring these “modern” methods to fruition, without sacrificing accuracy.

And therein lies the literary rub: it costs money upfront to make sure these new operations work well and reach all segments of a culturally and geographically diverse population. What happens when the Census Bureau doesn’t have the money to figure it all out?

It could abandon most new initiatives, on the reasonable premise that it is too risky to deploy sweeping operational reforms without thorough evaluation and testing. Going back to the 2010 Census design will cost billions more. Which Congress has said it will not allocate. Do we abandon a robust communications campaign, in-language materials, local partnerships? Start counting and stop when the money runs out? Roughly one-quarter of all households don’t respond to the census upfront, if recent history is any guide. The most costly operation is tracking down the remaining, so-called “hard to count” residents, who disproportionately are people of color or live in low-income or limited English proficient households.

The bureau could “stay the course” and hope that fundamental reforms will work, without really knowing if those methods will count all segments of the population — especially historically undercounted groups — well. Trying to save money by replacing door-to-door visits with data from other government programs could leave out the very people who already are less connected to civic life, such as younger, unemployed singles and immigrants.

I can’t figure out what kind of census Congress thinks it will get without investing enough money in planning and preparation. The Senate Appropriations Committee graciously explained in its report on the funding bill that the Census Bureau had made a “conscientious decision” to start 2020 Census planning much earlier in the decade than in census cycles past. Nevertheless, the majority report said, the bill allocates 34 percent more money than at the same point in the 2010 Census cycle, and the committee expects a return for its investment in the form of cost savings. There is no mention of accuracy, or of efforts to achieve an inclusive census in hard-to-count communities. The timeless goal of ensuring a solid foundation for our democracy has taken a back seat to pressing fiscal concerns.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was having none of it, calling the committee funding level “inadequate and irresponsible.” She proposed a $360 million boost for the Census Bureau; her amendment (which proposed funding increases for several agencies in the massive bill) failed on a party-line vote.

There wasn’t much discussion about the census during the committee’s meeting on the FY 2016 Commerce bill, which allocates $1.13 billion overall for the Census Bureau, compared to the president’s request of $1.5 billion and $992 million approved by the House. But senators spent a lot of time debating the merits of industrial hemp and federal enforcement of anti-marijuana laws in states that allow people to smoke pot for medical and, um, other purposes. I guess that was the high point of an otherwise dismal morning for the 2020 Census.

Gone Fishin’ (Come find me in 2021)

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’m going fishing.

No, really, this makes perfect sense as I head into the twilight of my census advocacy career.

I’ve been listening to the House of Representatives consider the FY 2016 funding bill (H.R. 2578) that covers the U.S. Census Bureau and a whole lot of other, obviously more important, government activities. My ears perked up during opening debate, when I heard Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) emphasize the importance of “data collection” no less than 10 times. Then I realized he was talking about fishing stock assessments, conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), under the Department of Commerce… which houses the Census Bureau. See, sometimes you have to shift around life’s organization chart just a little, and the world is your oyster.

Anyway, the real reason I’m considering early retirement is because, by the time our esteemed lawmakers finish with this massive funding bill in the next day or so, there won’t be any money left to take a census in 2020. Or, at least, a very good one.

You’d have thought a cut of more than 30 percent to the president’s budget request for 2020 Census planning and the American Community Survey (ACS) in the committee-passed bill was embarrassing enough. But that would mean you didn’t read the final line of my last blog post.

Sure enough, just two amendments into the floor action, another $100 million was gone from the Census Bureau account covering these two parts of the decennial census. Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and William Pascrell (D-NJ), with enthusiastic support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, transferred the money to the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants program. No one winced at the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the Census Bureau wouldn’t have enough money to continue modernizing the 2020 Census or to preserve the current ACS sample size. (And never mind that the Byrne JAG program and community policing initiatives rely, at least in part, on census and ACS data to allocate funding, target human resources, and understand community dynamics.)

Then Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL) scooped up $4 million for veterans’ treatment courts. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) took another $17.3 million for programs that combat human trafficking, after solemnly assuring colleagues that the Periodic Censuses and Programs account did not pay for the constitutionally required population count, only the useless ACS. Um, whatever you say, congressman.

Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) and Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) did reject an amendment offered by Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) to shift five percent of the Census Bureau’s budget to enforce fair trade laws. Apparently, logging companies in the congressman’s district are having a hard time competing with their counterparts north of the border. Congress has a “constitutional responsibility” to protect Americans from unfair trade practices, Rep. Poliquin intoned. Before withdrawing his amendment, he had this gem of a parting shot: “I think jobs are more important than counting people.” I cannot make this stuff up.

On the bright side (always looking for a ray of sunshine amid the annual storm), several Democratic members — including Reps. Mike Honda (CA), Barbara Lee (CA), Nita Lowey (NY), and Mr. Fattah —warned the House during general debate about the dangerously low funding levels for the Census Bureau. But the appropriations bill will head to the Senate with nearly half a billion dollars less than the Administration requested for the account that funds the 2020 Census and ACS. Like full committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) said at the start of debate, we have to reduce funding for “lower priority programs.”

The fun isn’t over. Rep. Poe will be back on the floor as the bill wraps up, offering his amendment to make response to the American Community Survey voluntary. But I might be packing up my rod and tackle box and looking for a gurgling stream somewhere. Because there might not be enough money for a modern, less costly census, and Congress has already said it won’t pay for a more expensive one. Just don’t look for me in Maine.

Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

By Terri Ann LowenthalCensus Project Co-Director 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.