Before passing legislation to fund the Census Bureau and dozens of other federal agencies in Fiscal Year 2015, the House of Representatives indiscriminately sliced and diced the Census budget.

The $51.2 billion Commerce-Justice-State (CJS) Appropriations bill passed last night by a vote of 321-87. However, it included only $973 million for the Census Bureau, an amount likely insufficient to conduct the American Community Survey (ACS) in FY2015 and requisite testing to prepare for the 2020 Census.

The Obama Administration requested $1.211 billion for the Census Bureau's activities in FY2015, an increase of 28% from the final FY2014 funding level ($945 million) to ramp up for the 2020 national headcount. The House Appropriations Committee dropped the funding level to $1.106 billion, a $105 million decrease from the President’s request, when it passed the legislation on May 8. That decrease was fueled by amendments from Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-WA) to strip Census Bureau funding for use on pet projects.

Finally, on the House floor Wednesday and Thursday, amendments stripped a further $133 million from the Census in favor of several other programs. Feverish lobbying by MRA and our coalition allies seemed to barely contain the damage.

As CJS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA-10) explained Wednesday night, “This is one of the few areas where the Constitution actually requires this body to do something. Frankly, this body, a lot of times, does nothing. This, we are required to do it.”

Unfortunately, the litany of Members of Congress coming to the floor to steal away Census funding eventually exasperated Wolf: “I announce that we are going to postpone the 2020 census and move it to 2021 or maybe to 2022… if we keep fining census,  census, census, then there will be no census.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA), similarly rattled, commented that Congress could not “walk out with a bill with zero for census and live up to our responsibilities.”

Three amendments moving $118 million in Census funding to other programs were approved by voice vote:

  • An amendment from Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) moved $110 million to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program.
  • An amendment from Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) moved $4 million to Interagency Crime and Drug Enforcement.
  • An amendment from Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL) moved $4 million to mental health and veterans’ treatment courts.

Another amendment, from Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), would have swiped $3 million for NOAA to help propagate salmon, but it was defeated by voice vote.

Finally, the House approved another pair of amendments by roll call vote on Thursday afternoon:

  • The amendment from Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) moving $12 million for NOAA storm research passed, 340-71.
  • The amendment from Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) moving $3 million more to the COPS program passed, 306-106.

A great irony of the funding raids was pointed out by Census Project co-director Terri Ann Lowenthal. On the McNerny amendment, “isn’t it a little ironic that applications for COPS grants require data on poverty from” the ACS? And on the Bridenstine amendment, “where do Oklahomans think their civic agencies get the data for disaster preparedness, evacuation and response?” The ACS.

Why Census funding in FY15 matters
The 2020 Census must count 334 million people in more than 130 million households and group facilities, by April 1, 2020. The 2010 count got so expensive that the Bureau will consider diving into a whole host of more advanced data collection and processing options, such as:

  • Offering multiple response options, including Internet and mobile, but cyber-security and volume concerns must be tackled, and Americans responding electronically also must be counted at the correct address;
  • Automating data collection in the field with call centers and handheld devices (and an effective and safe bring-your-own-device arrangement);
  • Using administrative records (data other government agencies already have) to count households that don’t automatically respond;
  • Targeting pre-decennial address canvassing to the specific areas experiencing heavy housing changes, using administrative data to update and confirm addresses;
  • Using administrative data to improve the management of field staff in real time, determining the best sequence of phone calls, planning travel routes, and prioritizing caseloads.

These 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.

MRA’s view
We are deeply disappointed by the cuts to the Census Bureau’s funding, and the threat they pose to the ACS and 2020 Census.

The work never ends: the Senate Appropriations Committee meets to write and pass their version of the legislation next week. We joined with our Census Project coalition allies in a letter to the committee today, and will be heading for our last meetings with Senate staff next week before the committee digs in.