WASHINGTON – Statistician John Thompson looks like a shoo-in to serve as the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau, but House Republicans are endeavoring to make the post he’s likely to assume significantly smaller in scope.
The nomination of Thompson, who spent more than 25 years with the bureau before leaving for the private sector 11 years ago, was announced by President Obama on May 23. A confirmation hearing is scheduled before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on July 9. If approved by the full Senate, Thompson will succeed Robert Groves, who resigned, and serve until Dec. 31, 2016.
“I think the president has made a wise choice in nominating Dr. John Thompson for this important position,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee chairman. “Dr. Thompson has a strong background in statistics and issues related to the census and if confirmed, he will bring a wealth of experience and service to his new role as director of the Census Bureau.”
The Census Project, an informal coalition of organizations that support the agency’s activities, encouraged lawmakers to quickly confirm Thompson “so that the bureau can continue serious planning for Census 2020.”
Thompson held several posts during his tenure at the Census, including serving as associate director for the 2000 decennial census and chief of the Decennial Management Division. He left to become executive vice president and later president and chief executive officer of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, an organization perhaps best known for its involvement in the Florida Ballot Project, examining about 180,000 uncounted ballots in the contested 2000 presidential election in behalf of several news organizations. NORC’s participation occurred before Thompson joined the organization.
The Census, mandated by Article I, Section II of the U.S. Constitution, conducts a national population count every 10 years – the next will occur in 2020 – that is used in the reapportionment of seats in the House. It also conducts numerous other surveys that are used to allocate over $400 billion in federal funds every year.
“The Census Bureau regularly provides the government, business, and academia with an updated picture of who we are as individuals, communities, and a nation,” Carper said. “As one of the federal government’s few constitutionally mandated functions, the decennial census plays a central role in a number of issues ranging from determining how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives to how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assistance are allocated to state and local governments. Needless to say, finding and enumerating more than 300 million individuals is an extremely daunting task – one that requires years of careful planning, preparation, research, and, most of all, good leadership.”
Should Thompson be confirmed he will be taking the controls of a bureau that finds itself in transition. Carper noted the 2010 Census cost $14 billion, the most expensive count history. The cost has risen from $39 a household in 1990 to $70 in 2000 and $96 in 2010.
“At a time when the federal government is facing an unprecedented budget deficit, it is critical that we do what all that we can to ensure an accurate and cost-effective decennial census,” Carper said. “I appreciate Dr. Thompson’s willingness to tackle this challenge.”
Congressional Republicans have tried in the recent past to cut the bureau’s budget. The House-passed spending plan for fiscal year 2013, formulated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and the 2012 GOP nominee for vice president, proposed cutting the Census budget by $10 million below its 2012 appropriation and $91 million less than the bureau’s request. The plan failed to gain Senate approval.
Like other federal government agencies, the Census has fallen victim to sequestration, congressionally mandated across-the-board cuts imposed to address the nation’s budget deficit. The reductions arrive at a time when the bureau is attempting to develop new technologies to enhance data-collection efficiency, such as the creation of an online response system that is privacy protected.
But the biggest near-term wrestling match Thompson likely will find himself engaged in involves the American Community Survey, an ongoing assessment implemented in 2005 and sent to about three million addresses per year to gather information previously available only through the Census long form. Participation is mandatory and the penalty for failing to comply is a fine of up to $5,000.
Conservatives generally have lined up against the ACS, maintaining it is intrusive and not authorized by the Constitution. Critics note the 28-page survey contains 48 questions like:
Do you have a flush toilet in your house?
What time do you go to work in the morning?
What time do you come home in the afternoon?
How much money do you make?
Do you have a second mortgage on another home?
Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does someone in the household have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?
Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, maintains that the ACS, at the very least, shouldn’t be mandatory and that “it probably shouldn’t exist at all.”
“Americans rightly expect to live their lives with a reasonable level of privacy,” Coulson said. “The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects them from government searches unless there is some compelling reason for them. But the reasons for making the ACS mandatory are not at all compelling. Medical and social science researchers manage to deal with their inability to forcibly assign subjects to treatment and control groups. Political pollsters manage to produce reasonable forecasts without being able to compel citizens to reveal how they will vote.”
Even when government is in possession of all relevant data, Coulson said, “it quite frequently makes idiotic decisions anyway — so it isn’t even clear that these ACS data would necessarily lead to more effective government programs.”
In May 2012 the House took two actions to essentially bury the ACS. In a 232-190, vote, lawmakers tacked on an amendment to the Commerce Department’s appropriations bill defunding the survey. The lower chamber also moved to prohibit the Census Bureau from imposing fines on those who choose not to participate.
“If citizens want to tell you how often they lose concentration or how many flush toilets are in their home, that’s up to them,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). “Frankly, I think it’s none of the government’s business. To threaten prosecution for the failure to answer these questions is outrageous. The purpose of the census is to apportion the congressional seats. Accordingly, asking about the number of household members of voting age and the race of the household members for purposes of constitutional compliance are the only two questions the government needs the answer to.”
The Senate didn’t address the issue so the provisions were never imposed. But the battle is ongoing. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced legislation in March prohibiting the enforcement of any fines for failing to participate in ACS. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) has introduced companion legislation in the House.
“This bill seeks to protect citizens and addresses concerns about the level of personal information collected by the American Community Survey,” Paul said. “By making this survey voluntary, people would have the opportunity to decide what, if any, information they share with the government.”
“The Federal Government has no right to force citizens who do not fill out the American Community Survey with a criminal penalty,” said Poe. “I have heard from countless Texans who are uncomfortable with the intrusive nature of some of the questions in the ACS, but they feel intimidated and forced to participate because the threat of a criminal penalty from the government still exists. I am pleased that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle agree that penalizing private citizens for not filling out a government-mandated survey is an abuse of government power.”