Congress is set to fund most of the federal government in fiscal year 2015 (starting October 1) with a “continuing resolution” in the next few weeks, funding government activities at the same level as the current fiscal year. For the 2020 Census, that could mean a fiscal and statistical disaster later in the decade -- and once we’re on that road, veering off might be extremely difficult.

As MRA and our Census Project coalition allies explained in calling for a funding “anomaly” in the continuing resolution to allow for necessary Census 2020 planning: “The Census Bureau’s ability to complete 2020 Census research and testing of cost - saving innovations and design updates, including content review for the American Community Survey, and to begin systems and operational development, on schedule, will be at high risk without a “ramp up” in funding at the start of Fiscal Year 2015.”

The Census Bureau already has scaled back or postponed key planning activities for the decennial headcount due primarily to previous funding delays and reductions. In FY 2015, the Bureau will conduct four major field tests to evaluate innovations that could improve efficiency in the count and streamline field operations.

Legislative train wreck
Neither side of Congress is doing the hard work at the moment to ensure a successful, efficient and less-expensive decennial Census.

Feverish lobbying could barely contain the damage in the House of Representatives on May 29, when Democrats and Republicans banded together to slice and dice $133 million from the Census Bureau’s budget during floor debate of the CJS Appropriations bill. That was on top of the $105 million cut from the President’s Census funding request during debate in the Appropriations Committee.

The House also passed, by voice vote, an amendment to make the American Community Survey (ACS) voluntary.

On the other side of the Capitol, MRA and our allies fared better convincing Senators not to hack away. After meetings with MRA and our allies, and another joint letter, the Senate Appropriations Committee only reduced the President’s budget request for the Census Bureau by some $66 million -- not chump change, but nowhere near as bad as in the House. We then sent another joint letter asking the Senate leadership to maintain funding at least at that level.

In advance of debate on the Senate floor, MRA had to rally Senators against an amendment from Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) which would have required the 2020 Census to ask respondents about their immigration status. Asking questions about citizenship and immigration could adversely impact the accuracy of the 2020 Census and America’s ability to know our true population numbers, by deterring many immigrants (legal or illegal) from responding.

However, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) ended up pulling the whole CJS funding bill from debate once a GOP amendment was proposed on which he did not want to allow a vote.

Next steps in ensuring an accurate and affordable decennial Census
Reforms could save taxpayers at least $5 billion from the final decennial headcount’s price tag, while producing a more efficient and accurate census. A failure to test them properly in FY15 could easily leave the Census Bureau in the unpleasant and expensive position of another archaic-but-relatively-safe 2020 Census conducted with paper and pencil.

We need an “anomaly” in Congress’ continuing resolution for the Census Bureau, to properly fund 2020 Census planning and testing in FY 2015. As explained in our recent letter, “A lack of adequate resources and the uncertainty of final funding levels may well force the Census Bureau to delay, scale back, or even cancel critical field tests, putting at risk the full range of design innovations that will save the taxpayer billions of dollars over the census lifecycle.”

Over the next few weeks, we will continue to discuss these funding needs with Congressmen, Senators and their staff, as well as the Administration, to try to salvage a so-far disappointing year for Census funding in Congress.