Congress finally has gone home for an extended summer recess (think party conventions and upcoming elections). People, this generally is a good thing. While some snarky observers accuse the current legislature of being a “Do Nothing Congress,” I respectfully submit that lawmakers, in fact, have taken a few bold steps to reassure us they may have lost their minds! Or perhaps it was just a spring fever.
In case you were hurtling towards Mars with Curiosity over the past few months, let’s recap congressional action to date on the Census Bureau’s fiscal year 2013 (FY13) budget. Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees passed their respective versions of the FY13 Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill in April. Looking only at the bottom line, Senate appropriators were supportive of the President’s $970 million request for the bureau, fully funding core programs like 2020 Census planning, the American Community Survey (ACS), and the 2012 Economic Census. Their House counterparts weren’t in such a generous mood, knocking $92 million off the Administration’s proposal, all but $6 million of which would eat into the aforementioned signature activities.
So there were census advocates, imploring representatives to shield the Census Bureau from further pain on the House floor, when Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), with assistance from census oversight panel Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), had a brilliant idea, based on the solid foundation that none of the witnesses at a March hearing of the Gowdy subcommittee — save Rep. Poe himself — supported changing ACS response from mandatory to optional, the goal of a bill Poe sponsored. The amendment to accomplish this deceptively harmless move away from a policy as old as the republic passed breezily by voice vote.
The ease of achieving that non-budget related objective presumably caught legislators so off guard that they quickly succumbed to another, even more stunning revelation: the nation doesn’t need any information on which to base decisions of virtually any kind, public or private! And seeing which way the winds were blowing, a majority of House members — right on up to senior committee and party leaders — gave the thumbs up to this brilliant stroke of governing theory (I somehow missed this concept in Government 101), voting in favor of an amendment offered by Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) to eliminate all funding for the American Community Survey, the only source of objective, comparable, and reliable data for every community in the country.
And lest some readers accuse me of being partisan (as some, who shall not be named, have), let me remind census fans that bipartisan damage occurred during House consideration of the Commerce spending bill. Yes, the vote to kill the ACS split largely along party lines, with only four Republicans standing up for the survey and eleven Democrats bowing to imagined pressure from surly anti-information constituents. (Kudos go, in particular, to Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-NC, whose vote against defunding the ACS showed he actually learned something, as a former census subcommittee chairman,about the importance of data and the difficulties of producing useful information.)
But two Democratic-sponsored amendments (by Rep. Corrine Brown, FL, and Rep. Stephen Lynch, MA) stripped the Census Bureau of $24 million (a further reduction from the inadequate committee-approved funding level), a cut that will doom the Economic Census if it holds; the bureau narrowly escaped losing another $38 million under a third Democratic-proposed budget cut (by Rep. Michael Michaud, ME).
To be fair, lawmakers momentarily redeemed themselves (in the eyes of census groupies) by passing a bill that, in relevant part, gives the Census Director a fixed five-year renewable (once) term. This long overdue improvement will help the agency avoid disruptive turnovers and vacuums in leadership that usually accompany a change of occupants in the White House.
For better or worse (I still can’t decide which), the Commerce funding bill never made it to the Senate floor before the August get-away. But no one should rest easy just because lawmakers threw up their hands and passed off the FY13 funding decisions to members of the 113th, agreeing to take up a six-month temporary funding measure in the fall (the venerable and much over-used Continuing Resolution) that will keep agencies afloat at current year budget levels. As the interim appropriations bill nears the end of its shelf life, beware the Ides of March! No doubt anxious legislators will be waiting for a second opportunity to stick it to government (“What time do you leave for work?”) intruders by — de facto (optional response) or de jure (no funding at all) — pulling the rug out from under the American Community Survey. And this time, anyone who values decision-making based on objective information accessible to all, will be ready to fight back.
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