At a crucial point in the decennial Census lifecycle, the House and Senate have diverged on how much money the Census Bureau should be able to work with in Fiscal Year 2014. The Senate met the White House's request while the House cut funding during their respective Appropriations Committee markups of the Commerce-Justice-Science funding legislation last week. Legislators on both sides of Capitol Hill also raised pointed questions and concerns in their Committees' reports on the 2020 Decennial Census and the American Community Survey (ACS).

Budget crunching
The House Appropriations Committee moved first, approving their version of the legislation by voice vote on July 17. The Committee approved $845 million for the Census Bureau, which includes the ACS and preparations for the 2020 Census. Unfortunately, that is nearly $138 million less than President Obama's budget request for Census funding in FY14 and $44 million less than the current fiscal year funding level.

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed their bill on a 21-9 vote on July 18. The Committee essentially agreed to the Obama Administration's Census funding request for $982 million.

How the two sides' funding levels will be reconciled is not clear at this point. The nation's capital is already discussing another looming standoff over a federal government shutdown in October. Both legislative bodies are headed to the exits shortly for their August recess and neither is likely to pass their CJS legislation before September.

A close call for the American Community Survey
Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS-01) had planned on introducing an amendment during the House Appropriations Committee consideration of the Census' funding legislation that would have made the ACS voluntary instead of mandatory. It was modeled on a similar amendment from Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) adopted during House floor debate in 2012 and would have gutted the ACS, which is essential to ensuring the statistical representativeness of most research in the U.S.

MRA tried to convince Rep. Nunnelee not to push this amendment, as did many other of our Census Project coalition allies. While the mass of communications was surely educational, it would appear that the advocates most responsible for convincing Rep. Nunnelee and his staff to shelve the amendment were from the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) and the American Statistical Association (ASA).

We still expect another amendment to make the ACS voluntary, and to eliminate it entirely, to come up during floor debate on this funding bill again this year, so we continue to meet with and educate as many Congressmen and their staff as possible.

House and Senate concerns
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees raised questions and concerns in the reports that accompanied passage of their respective CJS appropriations bills.

The House report focused on concerns about the Bureau's information technology (especially preparations for a mobile infrastucture), regarding security, "operational efficiency" and costs.

The Senate report looked specifically at the ACS, directing the Census Bureau to update the Committee "on efforts to evaluate questions included in the ACS, and the steps being taken by the ombudsman position established by the Census Bureau in fiscal year 2013 to ensure that the ACS is conducted as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible."

The Senate report also set specific demands for cost control in preparation for the 2020 Census, demanding that the Bureau provide "specific actions the Bureau can take to reduce spending compared to the 2010 decennial census and descriptions of any challenges the Bureau anticipates could prevent it from achieving the budgetary goal."

Finally, the Senate directed the Bureau "to continue to incorporate a Web-based version of its census forms including the American Community Survey when planning for the 2020 decennial census. Such digital tools will likely ensure a more complete initial response and reduce the need for nonresponse follow-up work which is the most expensive phase of census operations."

All these points mirror concerns raised by some of the Senators at the recent confirmation hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee for John H. Thompson, President Obama's nominee to be Census Director.

Budget impact
Actiing Census Director Tom Mesenbourg recently adressed the negative impact of budget sequestration on Census initiatives -- an impact which would only worsen under the House Appropriations Committee's funding levels -- and labeled them "not sustainable."

2020 Decennial Census Programs:  Planning for a Decennial Census is a decade-long endeavor, based on planning and research.  The substantial cuts to the 2020 Census threaten the Census Bureau’s ability to deliver the preliminary design options for the 2020 Census in FY 2015, as scheduled.  At the reduced funding level, we cannot carry out the planned research and testing plan needed to inform the design options.  The reduced FY 2013 funding level also has forced us to delay field tests and preparatory work related to FY 2014 field tests, which pushes back the evidence needed to make design decisions in FY 2015. Delays in research related to more cost-effective census methods could result in higher census costs later in the decade.

Geographic Support Program:  Reductions to the Geographic Support program will delay important research related to the Master Address File, likely delaying decisions about the viability of cost-saving designs associated with the 2020 Census address canvassing operation, scheduled for later in the decade.

American Community Survey:  Cuts to the American Community Survey (ACS) eliminate much needed investments in the ACS processing infrastructure, program management, and research program.  These reductions undermine the ACS’s ability to serve as a test bed for the 2020 Census and will likely delay planned ACS content and instrument research and testing.

2010 Census:  In order to provide funding for the 2012 Survey of Business Owners, the Census Bureau requested and the Congress approved the reprogramming of $2.25 million from the 2010 Census.  The loss of this funding will delay, or possibly cancel, the release of the 2010 Census Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) file.  The staff working on the 2010 PUMS file have been reassigned to work on the 2020 Census program.

As noted by the Census Project coalition's Terri-Ann Lowenthal, because of all the planning and preparation required early in the decade before a decennial Census, "Without early investment in census research, testing and development, Congress could be spending a fortune to pull the 2020 headcount out of a ditch in a few short years."

MRA's view
There are no shortage of fights coming up, both this fall and over the rest of the decade, over how best to improve the American Community Survey (ACS) and the 2020 Decennial Census, and whether or not to keep the ACS at all.

In an atmosphere of complete distrust for government data collection, thanks to repeated federal agency data security breaches, scandals at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and revelations of government "snooping" into private email and phone records by the National Security Agency (NSA), it is amazing that MRA gets any nods of agreement and understanding from Congressmen, Senators and their staff.

We are making progress, slowly but surely, in defense of the ACS and the Census. Bills in the House and Senate that would make the ACS voluntary (Rep. Ted Poe's H.R. 1078 and Sen. Rand Paul's S. 530) have not garnered as many cosponsors as last year. While there is no way to really have a "whip count" for a repeat vote on ACS amendments on the House floor, we are optimistic that the margin will shift.

MRA is in it to win it. MRA member Ginger Blazier did her part as a volunteer lobbyist for the ACS last month. Will you do the same? You do not have to travel to Washington, DC. It is easier to meet with your Congressman and Senators when they are back home and that personal constituent contact from volunteer MRA lobbyists may make all the difference in advocating for the ACS -- and the whole survey, opinion and marketing research profession.