GOP's Beef with Census Goes Beyond Obama's Latest Chicago Nominee

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.