After the House voted this month to defund a major part of the U.S. Census Bureau, the agency is taking the threat very seriously, with its supporters in both business and government rallying to preserve the annual questionnaire.
In a 232-190 vote, the House backed a move to end funding for the American Community Survey, which has replaced the long-form census as the chief way the government now collects most of its basic social statistics.
Top retailers have said the information is critical to doing business, while government bureaucrats point to the dozens of federal spending programs that rely on the data in order to properly dole out taxpayer money — and have pushed back against the House vote.
"Modern societies need current, detailed social and economic statistics. The U.S. is losing them," census director Robert M. Groves said in a video blog the bureau released as it stepped into politicking — an area it usually tries to avoid.
The ACS has replaced the long-form census questionnaire that the bureau used to send out once every decade to a small sample of homes. Most homes get the short form.
After the 2000 census, the bureau decided it wanted to have the long-form data updated more regularly, so it converted the long form into the ACS, which now samples a rolling subset of Americans every year.
The bureau reels off more than a dozen statutes and federal regulations it says require the kinds of data it collects from the ACS, which runs to at least 11 pages for one person, and can be much longer for a large family.
And businesses say the data helps them figure everything from where to locate stores to how to market their products.
But with questions that probe everything from a householder's average electricity bill to whether he is covered by health insurance and whether his home has flush toilets, the ACS has rankled an increasing number of people, who say it's intrusive, and say all the Constitution requires is the decennial count to determine how many members of Congress each state will get.
Many in that growing movement have refused to complete the forms, daring the Census Bureau to impose the $5,000 fine allowed by law.
The move to defund the ACS came as an amendment to the annual spending bill that funds the Commerce Department.
Rep. Daniel Webster, who sponsored the amendment and said cutting the ACS could save $2.4 billion over the next decade, said he wasn't surprised the bureau has pushed back so hard.
"Any agency, bureau or department of government that has the potential of losing 5,579 employees would probably push back," the Florida Republican said.
He said he hasn't heard from the bureau directly since the May 9 vote, but he has heard from constituents who think the cut is a good idea.
"These are the kinds of things I was sent to Congress to take care of," Mr. Webster said.
His initial amendment passed on a near-party line vote, with just four Democrats voting for it and 10 Republicans voting against it.
The House legislation still must go through the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats who likely will try to block it or water it down.
The upper chamber has seen its own share of census fights over the years — most recently in 2009 when Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, tried to attach an amendment that would have had the 2010 census ask a question about citizenship.
Mr. Vitter pointed to studies that found that several states end up getting more representatives in Congress based on counting of their illegal-immigrant population, and he said that was unfair. The Constitution says seats in Congress shall be divided based on total population, not on citizen population or voting-age population.
In addition to defunding the ACS, the House passed another amendment preventing the Census Bureau from imposing fines on those who refuse to fill it out.
But Mr. Groves told Congress earlier this year that this would amount to making the ACS voluntary, which would cut down on the number of people responding and make the survey's data far less reliable. He also said it would increase costs by $66 million a year.
Mr. Groves said he could find no evidence of anyone actually having been assessed the fine, but said keeping it as an option is a way to compel better compliance.
Still, making the survey voluntary could be one middle ground between the House and Senate when it comes to making a deal later this year.
Some lawmakers in the House have even floated the idea of making businesses pay for the data as a way of recouping costs, while others said the Census Bureau — which has occasionally advocated using statistical sampling for the decennial census — could make use of that technique to correct for any errors in a voluntary census.
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