Tag Archives: Congressional Oversight

Fly Me to the Moon

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

The Fiscal Year 2015 appropriations process is rolling merrily along.

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) funding bill. The $51 billion measure covers everything from weather satellites, to space exploration, to crime prevention, anti-drug trafficking initiatives and prison reform, not to mention programs to boost global competitiveness, manufacturing, exports and tourism, neuroscience research and fisheries restoration. And, oh yes, the census.

Not that anyone was paying attention to the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization, the very foundation of our representative system of governance, embodied in the opening clauses of the U.S. Constitution. It’s hard for legislators to wrap their heads around the urgency of a statistical undertaking that is six years away. They do better with concrete activities — like “new interest among some members of Congress and others … in the possibility of … a crewed mission to the vicinity of Mars,” according to the committee report explaining the bill. Appropriators gave NASA $435 million (yes, with six zeroes) more than the Obama Administration requested for the space agency.

It didn’t take long for the Census Bureau to become a piggy bank for other agencies that clearly have champions and advocates in the spending committee. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) got the ball rolling with her proposal to pilfer $1 million (the pennies in your stash) from the Census Bureau to train our “wounded warriors” to fight online child exploitation through the HERO Program. (Geez, talk about a tug at the heart-strings.) But the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee — really? You’d think someone immersed in the partisan game of redistricting would appreciate the complexities of preparing for an accurate census. To use the language of millennials, smh (that’s, shaking my head).

I know I’m getting a bit worked up over a measly $1 million. But after the CJS subcommittee chairman and ranking Democrat graciously accepted the funding shift without batting an eyelash (the wheels are greased on most amendments in advance), sophomore Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-WA) courageously offered her first appropriations committee amendment ever and snatched another $10 million from the Census Bureau for the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund. Her colleagues lauded the economic benefits of the salmon industry and approved the funding swap by voice vote. (Did I not tell you in my April 11 post to keep an eye on those coastal lawmakers? Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-ME, reminded colleagues that coastal management is vital because 75 percent of Americans will live within 50 miles of a coast by 2025. Wait! How do we know that?)

And just like that, the Census Bureau lost $11 million. Oh, did I forget to mention that the committee’s draft bill had already shaved $94 million from the agency’s budget request? Maybe it’s just me, but I sense a serious incongruity between ramp up to the next census and a nine percent budget cut. One of those trains is on the wrong track.

Since not one panel member said a word about or in defense of the Census Bureau’s work during a three-hour meeting, we can safely assume that this piggy bank will be cracked wide open when the commerce funding bill hits the House floor.

The interest in space travel has left me wondering, though: if Americans are on Mars when a census rolls around, do we count them at their ‘home of record’ using administrative data, as we do military personnel stationed overseas, or treat them like civilians living abroad, who aren’t enumerated? I mean, it’s not like you can take a 10-day vacation to the red planet. An amendment to boost the Census Bureau’s funding to study this important dilemma might pique congressional interest. I’m on it.

From the Ashes… The Poe Bill Rises Again

House Committee to Vote on Voluntary American Community Survey Bill Next Week

Census Project Co-Director Terri Ann LowenthalBy Terri Ann Lowenthal

This week, the College Board announced that it would overhaul the dreaded SAT test, to reflect more realistically the knowledge that students acquire in high school and the skills they will need to succeed in college. In that spirit, let me pose a strategic-thinking question:

Let’s say you’re a member of Congress. A committee on which you serve holds a hearing on a bill making response to a unique, irreplaceable and vital government survey voluntary, because the sponsor believes the government has no business collecting data on the characteristics of the nation’s population or households. Every witness at this hearing, other than the bill’s sponsor himself, opposes the bill. Those speaking against the proposal include a conservative think tank, a major housing industry association, and a leading business sector organization from the sponsor’s own home town; other diverse stakeholders submit their objections in writing.

The top agency official responsible for the survey tells your panel that making response optional would have serious, adverse consequences for a data source used by state and local governments, business and industry, transportation planners, school boards, advocates for veterans and people with disabilities, higher education systems, emergency preparedness agencies, community nonprofits — yes, the list goes on and on. He points to a congressionally-mandated field test showing that survey response rates, especially by mail, would plummet, and costs would rise by nearly a third (+$66 million dollars) at a time when Congress is squeezing the agency’s budget. The agency would no longer be able to produce essential demographic, social and economic estimates for less-populous areas of the country, including 41 percent of U.S. counties, small cities, villages, towns, many school districts, neighborhoods and American Indian reservations. “Modern societies rely on accurate statistics, and the ACS is a cornerstone of our country’s statistical infrastructure,” the agency director concludes.

Taking all of this information into account, your next logical step as an elected representative is to:

A: Conclude that the bill is misguided and would not serve the interests of the nation, or even the branch of government of which you are a member.

B: Ask the agency that administers the survey to ensure that it only collects data required to implement federal laws, establish eligibility for formula grants, and allocate federal program funds — all of which Congress directed.

C: Hold a future oversight hearing to explore ways the agency can improve the questionnaire, minimize burden on the public by re-engineering field procedures, and address concerns about privacy in an information-dependent era.

D: All of the above.

E: Two years later, schedule a vote on the bill anyway because, hey, who cares if no one thinks the bill has any merit; we’re Congress, and no one thinks anything we do makes sense! Plus, mid-term elections are around the corner.

If you selected answers “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” do not fret. The College Board announced that, as part of its overhaul, it will not penalize wrong answers! But if you still think you deserve credit, you might write to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which will vote next week (Wednesday, March 12) on H.R. 1078, a bill sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) to make response to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (part of the decennial census) optional.

And if you’re still looking for irony, consider this: Then-Census Director Robert Groves, testifying before the committee on March 6, 2012, noted that The College Board uses ACS data in their efforts to increase the number of students who graduate from college, especially those from high-poverty communities.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lie down with a cold pack on my forehead (again).

###

Editor’s Note: For more information, please read:

 

A Salute to Our Veterans (Courtesy of the ACS)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Let me start with a timely salute to our nation’s veterans. All 21 million of them, including 2.4 million African American and 1.2 million Hispanic former service members. Shout-outs to Killeen, Texas, and Clarksville, Tennessee, where veterans comprise a quarter or more of local residents. Hats off to the more than nine in ten veterans with a high school diploma — a greater proportion than the general population. And is it any wonder that these patriotic fellow citizens are twice as likely as non-veterans to hold a job in public administration?

Oh, sorry, I digress from the focus of this blog. But really, people, it’s important that we know this stuff — and more — about those who defend our freedoms. About three-quarters of our living military veterans served worldwide while the country was at war. More than a quarter of both Gulf War and post-9/11 era vets live with a service-connected disability. Nearly 30 percent of veterans reside in rural areas, but rural vets represent 41 percent of those enrolled in the VA health care system. Veterans in rural communities are more likely to have at least one disability compared to non-veteran rural dwellers.

Raise your hand if you know where I’m going with this. That’s right: a lot of what we know about our veterans comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Businesses, nonprofits, and federal, state and local leaders use ACS data to understand and address the needs of veterans — from job training and employment assistance, to health care, to housing, and more. Who among us wouldn’t want that for our former soldiers?

So why, oh why, in the words of Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), sponsor of a bill to cancel the ACS (and just about every other Census Bureau program), are Americans “fed up with these mandatory census surveys and [they’re] asking us to stop the harassment”?

Ummm, no, they’re not. Okay, maybe a few are grumbling. According to the Census Bureau’s new cheerleader for harassed Americans (officially called the Respondent Advocate), roughly 60 percent of households answer the ACS without any prodding at all. With a little encouragement and explanation, by phone or in person, the response rate jumps to 97+ percent (weighted). Of the 3.54 million households in the 2012 ACS sample, less than 8,000 refused to participate (and no one, I can assure you, was hauled off to jail). Let’s see: that’s a refusal rate of (drumroll) two-tenths of a percent. The 535 members of Congress were so deluged with anti-ACS complaints that they sent the bureau (another drumroll, please) 187 letters on behalf of distraught constituents over the past 18 months.

Sure, the ACS questions could use a systematic review and some fine-tuning; thorough training will help ensure positive interaction between survey takers and responding householders. I suspect the Census Bureau has been a little behind the eight ball in acknowledging thoughtful concerns about parts of the survey; it’s finally on the right track, I think. More on these efforts in my next blog.

But let’s stop pretending: ACS critics aren’t falling on their data swords for countless (no pun intended, census fans!) Americans abiding stoically in the shadow of government overreach. Ideology — namely, a belief that government can require little of the governed, coupled with an aversion to the sort of federal assistance dispensed on the basis of ACS data — is driving the campaign to weaken (with voluntary response) or eliminate the survey.

And that’s okay. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If you don’t believe that government has a fundamental interest in producing objective, comprehensive data to inform and guide decision-making, go ahead and make your case. Explain and defend the consequences or propose a practical alternative. Just please drop the cover of phantom citizens cowering behind mailboxes, dreading a nosy questionnaire and the prospect of devoting an hour of time to help the world’s greatest democracy function smartly. Most Americans, it seems, are wiser than you think. And they all love our veterans.

The Cycle of Life, Part Two: Time to Ramp It Up

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last week, I gave a little tutorial on the lifecycle cost of a decennial census. You know: “The seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.” Up and down are the operative words; right now, the cycle is in up mode. Meaning the Census Bureau needs modest funding increases each year to stay on an efficient, productive research and planning schedule that will save billions of dollars in implementation costs over the entire lifecycle.

Did I just date myself terribly? (“Like” if you remember that song!) But, I digress. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 (FY2014) $982.5 million budget request for the Census Bureau barely budged over his request for the current year. Embedded in that overall agency number is $486 million for the 2020 Census, which includes the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS).

The ACS is really a bargain, folks. Its $242 million price tag is an infinitesimal half a thousandth of a percent of the federal aid directed prudently (Congress enacts the formulas, after all) each year to states and localities for schools, roads and transit systems, rural economic development projects, health care, job training, crime prevention programs, and other state and local activities, based (directly or indirectly) on data the ACS yields annually. Businesses and community-based nonprofits use the data to make billions (and billions and billions) of dollars in investment and program decisions that spur job growth, commerce and economic development. And the survey is now a two-for-one deal: it’s a rolling test bed for new methods and systems that could reduce 2020 Census costs considerably.

Speaking of 2020 (just around the corner… see my last blog post!), the president requested an increase of $154.2 million to finish the research and testing phase, allowing the Census Bureau to select a design framework and move forward with operational and systems development in subsequent years. Key elements of census reform could include broad use of administrative records to keep the address list up-to-date and to identify unresponsive households during the enumeration, as well as multi-mode response options that take advantage of the latest tech gadgets. Without thorough research and testing, the bureau might fall back on a far more expensive (but tried and true) paper and pencil design. Which Congress already has said it won’t pay for, by the way.

As Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser warned Senate and House appropriators this week, “To achieve cost savings, the Bureau is exploring new and innovative design alternatives based on evidence from its research and testing operations. However, the Bureau may be seeing signs of delays due to budget reductions and schedule slippage in its 2010 decennial census evaluation program and the 2020 decennial research and testing program.”

The problem, in other words, is that the Census Bureau already is positioned fiscally to fall behind, because Congress whacked about 13 percent from its 2020 Census budget request for the current year, what with sequestration and across-the-board cuts. The bureau will need its full FY2014 request of $244.8 million for 2020 Census planning just to stay on top of things.

So here we are, once again, facing an uphill battle for a reasonable investment in two of the nation’s premier statistical programs, both of which return far more to a democracy and informed decision-making than they will ever cost. Time to buckle down, census stakeholders, and fight the good (if often unrecognized) fight!

A Fine Kettle of Budget Fish

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Last spring, the census world was in turmoil.

First, the venerable House Committee on Appropriations voted (H.R. 5326) to slash $92 million from the Census Bureau’s FY2013 budget request ($970.4M), most ($85.9M) of which would affect core programs — including the American Community Survey (ACS), decennial census planning and the quinquennial (I love saying that word!) Economic Census — in the Periodic Censuses and Programs account. Then, the full House of Representatives decided Americans could “just say no” to the ACS by making response optional instead of mandatory. This seemingly innocuous change would reduce mail response by 20 percent (more for some population subgroups) and boost survey costs by more than a third ($60-$70 million), according to a 2003 test. (For the benefit of legislators with short-term memories, it was Congress that mandated the test.)

But wait, to heck with having a choice, lawmakers said; let’s just scrap the whole survey! And while we’re at it, let’s cut an additional $24 million from Periodic Censuses… which left the Census Bureau to wonder if it could pull off the 2012 Economic Census and ACS (even if Congress let it) at all.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Congress can make some dubious decisions. But talk about biting the hand that feeds you! According to a Brookings Institution analysis, lawmakers allocated $416 billion in federal grants, direct payments and loans based on data derived directly or indirectly from the ACS. Call me obtuse, but how would Congress distribute that money if the data suddenly disappeared? Throw darts at a map of states and counties? Hold a highway-money lottery? (And don’t tell me that not allocating those funds is a golden opportunity to reduce federal spending; when was the last time a member of Congress turned down funds to pave a highway or assist firefighters in his or her district?)

Over in the “gentleman’s club” (clear throat), appropriators managed to stay calm, proposing a FY2013 funding level in line with the president’s request. The full Senate couldn’t quite muster the strength to take up the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill (S. 2323) before lawmakers raced home for the November elections. But House and Senate negotiators are now working to set final budget numbers for the Census Bureau before a temporary FY2013 funding bill (the Continuing Resolution, which extended agency operations at FY2012 funding levels) runs out on March 25. Let’s hope House members awake from a nine-month slumber with renewed sagacity and see the error of their penny-wise, pound-foolish ways.

Meanwhile, the president will send his FY2014 budget blueprint to Congress no earlier than March 4, at least one month later than a toothless law requires. But not to worry, there’s lots of intervening excitement brewing. The so-called “sequester” of the FY2013 budget — the product of legislators’ failure to actually agree on budget numbers for the fiscal year that started many moons ago — will take effect on March 1 unless Congress… well, agrees on something. If it doesn’t, federal agencies will have to cough up $85 billion, amounting roughly to a 5 percent across-the-board cut for non-defense domestic discretionary programs.

This week, President Obama challenged Congress to avoid that consequence by specifying funding cuts (coupled with revenue increases, which Republicans aren’t eager to embrace, but I’m not here to argue fiscal policy) before the budget coach turns into a pumpkin. What will happen between now and then is crystal-ball material, but Commerce Department Inspector General Todd J. Zinser had some wise observations for Congress at a Senate hearing last summer: “[T]he Census Bureau must analyze the 2020 decennial [census] design alternatives and make a decision by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2014… Decisions made during this decade’s early years will be critical for setting the course for how well the 2020 count is performed and how much it will ultimately cost.” With the Economic Census off the launch pad, the remaining two core programs — the ACS and the 2020 census — will feel the greatest budget squeeze absent sufficient funding for the Census Bureau. And the nation will be headed for a data vacuum or an expensive, incomplete decennial count, or both.

Are you still with me? Good, because it seems like we’ve gone from last spring’s mess to complete budget disarray. Good luck trying to keep up with this winter’s mayhem!

* * *

Correction: My last blog post mentioned a Census Dress Rehearsal in 2018. Historically, the Census Bureau has conducted a dry-run in two or three locations in the year ending in “8,” to evaluate operations in a census-like environment. But alas, there will be no such walk-through this decade. Former Census Director Robert Groves significantly retooled the planning phase of the census for 2020, in order to contain costs and take advantage of other opportunities (including using the American Community Survey as a test bed) to evaluate and tweak components of the census design. I apologize for the error — maybe I’m just getting nostalgic?

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.

The American Community Survey: Blessed by the Founding Fathers

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

I’ve been losing sleep ever since several members of Congress (including a former judge!) posited at a congressional hearing last month that the Census Bureau was overstepping constitutional bounds by requiring people to answer questions on the American Community Survey (ACS).  The ACS relieved the decennial census of its long-form burden after Congress urged the Census Bureau to streamline the decennial count and provide policymakers with more timely information.  But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an advocate of informed decision-making.  I think we Americans have a duty to help our nation understand its collective condition and shared future direction.  But an unconstitutional government intrusion into our private lives?  Not on my watch.  The idea that our census agency has been violating fundamental tenants of our treasured founding blueprint since the nation … well, became a nation … has been keeping me up at night.

Fortunately, none other than “Father of the Constitution” James Madison has come to my rescue.  When the House of Representatives debated the very first census bill in 1790, this founding patriarch and primary author of the Bill of Rights observed that lawmakers now had “an opportunity of obtaining the most useful information for those who should hereafter be called upon to legislate for their country if this bill is extended so as to embrace some other objects besides the bare enumeration of the inhabitants; it would enable them to adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.  In order to know the various interests of the United States, it was necessary that the description of the several classes into which the community was divided, should be accurately known; on this knowledge the legislature might proceed to make a proper provision for the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing interests, but without it they could never make their provisions in due proportion.”  (As cited in Government Accountability Office, Legal Authority for American Community Survey, B-289852, April 4, 2002)

I couldn’t have said it better myself (though heaven knows I’ve tried).  But let me translate into 21st century English.  The census gives us a chance, Madison said, to collect data that lawmakers can use to make informed decisions that meet the needs of the nation’s people and communities — decisions related, for example, to the agricultural, business, and manufacturing sectors.  A range of data beyond the number of people in each household, which backers of a voluntary ACS suggest is the only constitutionally permissible purpose of the census, would ensure that Congress allocated resources based on actual conditions.  Imagine that!

As for the ACS, it was Congress, starting in 1991, that not-so-gently nudged the Census Bureau to give up the traditional vehicle for collecting demographic and socio-economic information — known as the “long form” — and to continue its “embrace … of other objects” (to quote the oh-so-eloquent James M.) on a more frequent basis from a sample of households spread out across more years.  Congress never suggested that the ACS would not continue to be a part of the census, perhaps knowing full well that lawmakers had tied half a trillion dollars annually in domestic program funding to the results.

Of course, Congress has been known to pass legislation that doesn’t quite pass constitutional muster.  That’s why we have the Supremes, who determined in 1870 that Congress has unquestionable power to require both a population count and the collection of additional statistics in the decennial census.  (The Legal Tender Cases, Tex.1870; 12 Wall., U.S., 457, 536, 20 L.Ed. 287)  It’s just what our fourth president envisioned to help the legislature, of which he was then a part, make wise decisions.  Whew!

I’m sleeping better already.  Sweet dreams!