off the charts

Bills Shortchanging Census Highlight Need for Sequestration Relief

November 12, 2015: This post has been updated to correct the names of the committees covered by the House funding bill.

As Congress seeks to finalize 2016 funding levels for discretionary programs, House and Senate proposals to fund the Census Bureau would risk raising taxpayer costs in future years and undermining the quality of demographic and economic data that help shape countless business and policy decisions. Such proposals are driven at least in part by the 2011 Budget Control Act’s austere spending caps, as further reduced by sequestration.

At a time when the Census Bureau needs more resources to gear up for the 2020 census, the 2016 Commerce-Justice-Science funding bill that the House approved earlier this summer would cut the program area covering the 2020 census and the American Community Survey (ACS) — the nation’s main source of demographic data on the needs of local communities — roughly $109 million below the current level.

The Senate version of the funding bill is only a little less severe. Its funding level for Census/ACS is nominally higher than last year’s but not nearly enough to gear up for the 2020 census. Overall, the Senate and House bills provide about 30 percent and 40 percent less, respectively, than the Bureau says it needs for the program area covering the census and the ACS.

Inadequate preparation could significantly raise the cost of conducting the census, potentially wasting billions of dollars, the Bureau has warned. The House bill also includes ill-considered changes to the ACS that would seriously diminish its quality by making it voluntary.

Researchers of differing ideological bents recognize the importance of quality census data. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs and I explained in a joint letter to key senators:

Shortchanging the census would threaten the quality of the information collected. That could affect everything for which communities, policymakers, and businesses use the census — including planning for new schools, stores, restaurants, highways, home construction, and emergency response measures, allocating congressional seats and redrawing congressional boundaries, and efficiently administering federal funds.

Congress should recognize sequestration’s damaging impact on a wide range of discretionary programs and provide relief, offset with alternate savings, along the lines of the bipartisan 2013 budget agreement negotiated by then-House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and then-Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray.