Tag Archives: Congress

What Goes Around…

Terri Ann Lowenthalby Terri Ann Lowenthal

I love the census. Unlike many things in life, it’s so… predictable.

Just like clockwork, it comes around every 10 years. Like it or not politically; controversy be damned; the U.S. Constitution requires a decennial population count, and the U.S. Supremes have sanctioned Uncle Sam’s right to gather a broad set of useful information about America as part of that drill.

And what goes around seems to come around with respect to many spokes on the census wheel. Take, for example, the way Congress views census oversight. Almost a quarter-century ago (do I know how to date myself, or what?), I became staff director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. The census had its own, clearly-marked oversight panel, befitting of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization. Four years later, that panel morphed into the Subcommittee on Census, Statistics, and Postal Personnel. Okay, the U.S. Postal Service delivers census forms and provides updated address information for the Master Address File. But overseeing postal workforce issues while trying to monitor the nation’s vast statistical system? We scrambled to conduct the thorough monitoring the 1990 census required (especially since we also were responsible for federal holidays and observances … go figure).

The Senate had a dimmer view of census importance, tucking it into a panel with responsibility for energy, nuclear proliferation and federal services back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. After Republicans claimed the House majority in 1995, the census bounced around every two years or so, between subcommittees with oversight of national security, international affairs and criminal justice, to technology (prescient, in hindsight) and health care, although it managed to regain the spotlight briefly with its own panel during the 2000 count. More recently, Senate Democrats just wanted to test our powers of memorization by creating the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security (known as FFM, for short, thank heavens).

So here we are in 2013, and House leaders have put on their interior decorating hats once again. The result: A new Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census, chaired by second-term Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) of southern Texas, which sounds a lot like my old Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. The new chairman’s biography indicates past experience as a conservative radio talk show host, lawyer and web designer. We do know Rep. Farenthold supported the amendment last year to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey (ACS). I think stakeholders will need to dig out Census 101 materials and start the education process all over again.

Appreciation for the magnitude of census challenges is likely to be higher in the new Senate, now that former FFM subcommittee chair Tom Carper (D-DE) has assumed the top post on the full committee (Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs). And fortunately (or should I say, for better or worse?), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will continue to head the appropriations subcommittees (Commerce, Justice, and Science) that hold the Census Bureau’s purse strings. At least they know the drill.

Some census issues don’t so much repeat themselves as stay suspended in constant states of flux. The questions on race, ethnicity and ancestry are the most notable examples. The Census Bureau just announced it would drop the term “Negro” (one of several terms used to describe Blacks or African Americans in previous censuses) from the race question, starting with the 2014 American Community Survey (pending comments on its Federal Register notice, due February 25.)

You might ask what took so long. But before the 1990 census, when my lovable but firm census panel chairman, Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-CA), raised a well-known eyebrow to question the reference, Census officials explained that some older Black Americans still identified with the term and that the Bureau had to reach all segments of this historically undercounted population any way it could. Rep. Dymally, also chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time, demurred. But I think few would argue with dropping the reference now.

So the census seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round (there I go, dating myself again with ancient folk song references)… no time to get off the merry-go-round and snooze with a never-ending (we hope) American Community Survey and with planning for Census 2020 census well underway.

New Year’s Worries

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Now that the holidays have come and gone, I have a lot on my mind in the new year. The next census will start in eight years; the dress rehearsal is only six years away; local governments will start reviewing address lists in five years, when the Census Bureau, by law, must submit 2020 Census topics to Congress … oh my, where has the time gone?

And the fun really never stops. In a few weeks, the president will send his Fiscal Year 2013 budget to Congress; legislators will declare the proposal dead-on-arrival, retreat to their partisan corners of the ring for nine months, and fail to pass their own version of a spending plan before the fiscal year actually starts on October 1.

Oh sure, they’ll take a stab at passing funding bills. For the last two fiscal years, and at the eleventh hour, Congress dipped into the Census Bureau’s once-obscure Working Capital Fund (WCF) to meet reduced budget targets for the appropriations account covering commerce, justice and science programs, which includes the Census Bureau. In the uncertain world that is Congress, two years a trend does make. This has me very worried.

Historically, the Census Bureau has been a sitting duck for appropriators in the early years of a decade. With decennial census fatigue setting in when a year ending in “1″ rolls around, lawmakers seem to catch a collective case of indifference, helping themselves to significant chunks of the agency’s budget in order to meet tight federal spending limits and pay for other favored programs.

Once Congress discovers a large pot of money not on the radar of letter-writing, phone-calling constituents, it is likely to go to that well as many times as it can plausibly defend. Generally, that means until The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post editors point out how ludicrous the budget cut is. That’s what happened with the inconspicuous Economic Census, which might have been cancelled after House appropriators slashed the Bureau’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request by a quarter. (A 11/16/11 Huffington Post headline trumpeted, “Census Budget Cuts Eliminate Data on Job Creators.” A bit of an embarrassment for lawmakers in a recession marked by high unemployment.) Then Congress finds another way to reduce spending that turns out to be so difficult to explain, the funding bill is law before anyone has a chance to wrap their head around the consequences.

And regrettably, those consequences are not entirely clear at first blush. Census stakeholders from businesses, to advocates for the poor, to local governments can easily explain how a loss of reliable data hampers their ability to understand the communities they serve and allocate their fiscal and human resources prudently. (The real challenge is getting anyone in Congress to listen.) But the bureau’s Working Capital Fund, which (as GAO explains in a recent report, GAO-12-56) is a form of that exciting financing mechanism, an intergovernmental revolving fund? Not so much.

Cutting the WCF gives Congress some cover; it can say it didn’t take funds from important data collection programs, such as the American Community Survey (ACS), or research activities, such as testing an Internet response option for the 2020 count. But is that really the case? You can only cut shared overhead costs and capital investments so much before the foundation gets shaky and the building starts to crumble. Updated computers and enhanced security systems (for an agency with data privacy at its core)? They might sound like luxuries in today’s fiscal climate, but a business can only go so long without investing in operating improvements. Rent to GSA? The bureau’s National Processing Center in Jeffersonville, Indiana? Can’t do without a roof over your head and someone to tabulate all of that information you collect. So how to make up for the WCF losses of $55 million in FY11 and $50 million in FY12? Census Bureau program managers will have to tighten their belts once again, shedding activities that arguably fall lower on the priority list. Do you miss the beloved Statistical Abstract yet? Well, hang on to your statistical seats; more surveys, research and data products inevitably could fall by the wayside if the trend of cutting funds for essential shared services continues.

One more thing that’s bothering me about this new chapter in census budget-raiding history: Lawmakers who have a bone to pick with the Census Bureau could prune the Working Capital Fund to make a political point, without so obviously putting a specific program beloved by stakeholders at risk. Maybe a senator is unhappy with a staff appointment, or the population number for their state, or their inability to access a data set to which they aren’t entitled? I’m just saying.