Lawmaker Renews GOP Bid to Defund a Key Census Survey

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. House Committee on Homeland Security

A bill to reform the Census Bureau by repealing its authority to “conduct mandatory and invasive” surveys has been placed in the hopper by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C, drawing criticisms from political groups, scholars and business interests.

H.R. 1638 would force the bureau to discontinue a key economic survey, an agriculture survey and a mid-decade survey. “Right now the Census Bureau can ask citizens very invasive questions, and if they don’t respond, the government shows up at their door and threatens them with a fine” of up to $5,000, Duncan said in a statement Friday. “Americans are fed up with these mandatory census surveys and they’re asking us to stop the harassment.”

Last year, a similar amendment by Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., would have defunded the American Community Survey, a 28-page economic questionnaire sent annually to 3 million Americans. It cleared the House, but died in the Senate.

Duncan’s version, he said, was prompted by complaints from his constituents. “While the Census Bureau already has a legal obligation to keep people’s information confidential,” Duncan said, “we all know that in an age of cyberattacks and computer hacking that ensuring people’s privacy can be difficult….The Census Bureau shouldn’t be forcing anyone to share the route they take their kids to school, or any information other than how many people live in their home.”

The bill drew criticism from the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “Duncan’s bill wouldn’t just eviscerate the U.S. statistical system,” Kristina Costa, a CAP speechwriter and policy analyst in economic policy, told Government Executive. “We think it would blind business and government agencies to information about really important economic and social changes.” She pointed to support for the surveys from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noting the data’s utility in measuring unemployment, routing highway spending and determining where to place new businesses or traffic lights. “Accurate, timely and transparent census data are critical to functioning of the economy and are our biggest economic advantage in the global marketplace,” Costa said. “To go after all but the simple nose count is pound-foolish, and you can’t claim it’s pennywise.”

Also opposed is the Census Project, a coalition of 600 associations, think tanks, academics, local officials and civil rights groups. Defunding the economic survey would mean “we might not need congressmen, because just about all of them rely on Census Bureau data to justify their existence,” wrote the project’s blogger Terri Ann Lowenthal.

In an April letter to congressional leaders, the group wrote, “We cannot overstate the importance of both the decennial enumeration and ACS to the work we all do. The data are central to our democracy, affecting not only political representation from Congress down to local school boards, but also the prudent allocation of federal aid to states and localities each year. Businesses use Census Bureau data daily to make investment decisions on location, hiring, and useful products and services that are key to our economic recovery and growth.”

The Census Project has also criticized the Obama administration for its pace in selecting a new Census director. “The Census Bureau needs a permanent director, particularly as the agency confronts serious budget challenges, defends the American Community Survey, and conducts critical testing and systems development for Census 2020,” the group wrote to Obama.

Duncan offered one concession. “As a former small business owner, I recognize that some economic data gathering is beneficial,” he said. “However, it should be voluntary, industry-driven, and not mandated by the government under penalty of law. I’m confident in our ability to develop innovative ways to gather information without harassing people, invading their privacy, or threatening them with fines. Americans are tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives.”

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