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U.S. House takes its whacks at planning for 2020 census and at monthly survey

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have again shown their low regard for the Census Bureau, voting to use it as a bank to fund other federal agencies and telling people they don’t have to fill out a survey that allows the government to track the country’s changing demographics.

The moves came in a series of amendments to a 2016 spending bill for the Department of Commerce, home of the Census Bureau, and several other agencies that passed last night on a mostly party line vote of 242 to 183. House members took a total of $121 million from what officials say they will need in 2016 to prepare for the 2020 census and gave it to other federal agencies. (Terri Ann Lowenthal’s The Census Project Blog provides a blow-by-blow account.)

Last month, the House appropriations committee cut the agency’s requested 2016 budget for census-related activities by $374 million. After this week that amount has grown to nearly half a billion dollars less than the $1.2 billion the administration is seeking for those activities. The swaps conform to the Republican leadership’s dictate that any proposed spending increases be revenue-neutral, that is, that legislators find the money from another agency. And the Census Bureau’s proposed 38% increase for 2016 makes it a popular target.

That approach could be penny wise and pound foolish, however. The reduced funding levels, if adopted by the Senate, would make it difficult for the agency to properly test proposed changes to the next census that they say could save $5 billion. Those changes include making the census available online and using existing government records to provide answers to some of the questions. The goal is to send fewer workers out into the field to track down those who haven’t completed their forms, the biggest single cost of any census.

Census Bureau Director John Thompson has told Congress he hopes to carry out the 2020 census for no more than the 2010 census cost, on a per-household basis. But census officials say they won’t adopt any changes that sacrifice the quality of the enumeration.

The 2-day debate on the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations spending bill  also gave Representative Ted Poe (R–TX) an opportunity to win support for his long-running assault on the American Community Survey (ACS), a monthly questionnaire that goes out to 3.5 million people and supplements the decennial census. Answering the survey is now mandatory, a provision meant to ensure that the data it provides paints an accurate picture of everything from the nation’s commuting characteristics to residential energy usage. But Poe believes that the ACS asks many “intrusive and personal questions” and that the people chosen to participate should be able to ignore those that offend them.

Last month he reintroduced a bill (H.R. 2255) that would make the ACS voluntary except for gathering information on names and addresses. Since most programmatic, or authorization, bills are never enacted, Poe chose something that eventually Congress must pass—an annual spending bill—and tweaked his legislation to fit its narrower scope. Specifically, his amendment would prohibit the Census Bureau from spending money to compel people to respond.

As it happens, the bureau has just begun a pilot study of what it hopes could be a kinder, gentler ACS. It is testing modifications to messages in survey mailings with the goal of addressing critics, like Poe, who feel that it is being heavy-handed. (Nonrespondents are subject to prosecution and a fine, although no money has ever been collected.)

“This Amendment defunds enforcement of the criminal penalty of the survey,” Poe explained in a statement after his amendment was adopted by a voice vote. “The ACS is an unnecessary waste and an abuse of government power with no constitutional authority.”

On 10 June the Senate CJS subcommittee is scheduled to mark up its version of the 2016 spending bill, the next step on its journey. And there are outspoken critics of the ACS in that body as well, including Senator James Lankford (R–OK). So if and when the bill moves to the Senate floor, no one will be surprised if a version of Poe’s amendment is introduced.