The House of Representatives has tried to neuter the American Community Survey (ACS) again. On May 29, the House passed an amendment to an appropriations bill funding the Census Bureau to make response to the ACS voluntary instead of mandatory.
Congressman Ted Poe’s amendment passed by voice vote after negligible debate. As we will explain, surprisingly, such a result is not as bad as it would seem for our strategic goals.
The mandatory response (the ACS and the decennial head count are the only two mandatory surveys in the country) helps drive the high response rates for the ACS: 95 to 98 percent. By comparison, most surveys in the U.S. are lucky to hit a 10 percent response rate. That high response rate helps make the ACS the most accurate measure in the country down to the neighborhood and census tract level for a whole host of demographics and socioeconomic indicators. It is also why the survey, opinion and marketing research profession relies heavily on ACS data to calibrate that U.S. research studies are statistically representative of the population being sampled.
MRA has led the charge with our allies in the Census Project coalition to protect the ACS, especially its mandatory response, for several years. Congress had previously voted to make the survey voluntary during debate over this funding bill two years ago, then voted mostly along partisan lines to completely eliminate the ACS. (See how your Representative voted in 2012.) Some Members of Congress since then have claimed that they did not appreciate the ramifications of the vote, and expressed regret for letting it happen.
In the intervening two years, our coalition has grown and broadened, and we’ve reached and educated innumerable Congressman, Senators and staff. While we were pounding Capitol Hill the last two weeks to try to defend funding for the Census (which the House ultimately would cut by $238 million from the President’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2015), we also were doing last-ditch education on the need to maintain the ACS, and keep it voluntary.
This time around, there were no amendments to eliminate the ACS. And likely because we had all impressed on Congress the mistake they made in the FY2013 legislation, Congressman Poe brought his amendment to the floor by himself, and barely mustered a defense of it. Instead of multiple Representatives speechifying against the ACS, we got this exchange between Rep. Poe and Rep. Chaka Fattah (pictured above):
Mr. POE of Texas. Mr. Chairman, the American Community Survey, first of all, is not the Census. What it is is a survey conducted by the Census Bureau of a portion of the American population every year. It has 48 questions, and those questions are intrusive. There is, in my opinion, intimidation by the Community Survey workers to get this information from citizens. A single mother in my district told me one of the workers came by her house and started peeping in the window, knocking on the door, and sat in the street waiting for her to come home from work to get this information from her. The information is intrusive. It violates the right of privacy, in my opinion. It asks questions like: How many times have you been married? Does anyone in your household have a mental problem? What time do you go to work? And: How many toilets do you have? It is 48 very intrusive questions. My amendment is very simple. It prohibits the Federal Government from enforcing a potential fine against a person for failure to fill out this information. Right now, if a person doesn't fill out this information, Community Survey workers tell the citizen that they can be fined $5,000. Do we really want to fine Americans $5,000 for not telling the government how many toilets they have in their home? There are other ways this information can be gathered by the government without being intrusive and without violating the right of privacy. I would ask Members to support my amendment to prohibit a fine being imposed on the American Community Survey, and I reserve the balance of my time.
Mr. FATTAH. Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to the amendment.
The Acting CHAIR. The gentleman from Pennsylvania is recognized for 5 minutes.
Mr. FATTAH. I will not take more than 50 seconds. Simply put, the notion that we as a country are better off having less information defies most logic that I can think of at this hour of the night. I think more information is probably good, and I would ask that we vote against this amendment. I yield back the balance of my time.
No muss, no fuss. However, that may actually work to our advantage.
The leaders of the House Appropriations Committee accepted the amendment by voice vote instead of demanding a roll call vote in order to deprive the issue of oxygen. A voice vote makes it easier to defeat the amendment language when the House and Senate have to work out the differences between their respective versions of the appropriations legislation, because only Rep. Poe is on the record in support of it.
Of course, much more work remains to ensure that Senators understand the importance of the mandatory response ACS and will vote to keep it. MRA was in the Senate this afternoon meeting with staff, with our Census Project allies. We will have to be vigilant as the Senate version heads to floor debate, likely later this summer, and help to fend off any comparable amendments. Stay tuned.