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.

One response to “Radio Silence

  1. Do you have more info on the four field tests for 2015 (location, dates)?

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