- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2000

More than two years ago, the Census Bureau sent each member of Congress a report titled "Questions Planned for Census 2000." Congress was given the opportunity to vet each of the seven question on the short form and each of the 53 questions on the long form, which has been sent to one of six American households. Congress approved all of the questions.

Now, more than two years later, in the midst of the decennial census, several Republican leaders have raised objections, citing privacy concerns. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has encouraged respondents to ignore questions that they feel infringe on their privacy rights. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said, "If [people are] worried about the government intruding on their personal lives, they ought to think about it."

Having given advance approval of the questions, nearly all of which have been asked since 1940 without eliciting any notable complaints from politicians, congressional Republicans are not in the strongest position to complain now. As for Gov. Bush, during the same week he poured cold water on the census, he proposed an enticing education program that would allow parents to use so-called Title I money to pay for tuition in private schools. As it happens, the distribution of money from Title I and from countless other federal programs, including Medicaid, Head Start, highways, foster care, mass transit and community block grants, depends on the census.

Throughout the 1999 battle in which Republicans attempted to prevent the administration from using statistical sampling to augment the census head count for redistricting and other purposes a fight that will ultimately be resolved in the courts Republicans proposed several tactics to improve the accuracy of the census enumeration. These included conducting a lengthy post-census review, hiring an additional 100,000 census takers in urban areas and spending hundreds of millions of dollars advertising the census. However, apart from a unanimously endorsed "sense of the Senate" resolution, which instructed the Census Bureau to include a question about marital status on the short form, Congress offered no objection to the questions proposed by the Census Bureau. Until now.

No doubt Republicans, and many other Americans, object to the intrusive nature of questions about flush toilets, racial traits, income, disability characteristics and other issues as violations of privacy that the Founding Fathers could hardly have imagined. And they are right. The government has no business none asking questions like these. The time to make those objections, however, was two years ago when Republicans had a great opportunity to do so.

Intrusive questions are partly the price of running a big, intrusive government. According to a 1998 General Accounting Office report, 22 of the federal government's 25 largest redistribution programs rely at least in part on census data derived from those very questions. Averaging $625 per capita, these programs distribute nearly $200 billion per year in federal funds to states and localities. Moreover, according to the Census Bureau, each of the 53 long-form questions is required either by law or court decree.

Of course, the Census Bureau has an interest in maintaining its bureaucratic turf; Republicans shouldn't take the agency's word for what the law and the courts require. If necessary, Congress should change the law, override the courts, downsize government. Don't just tell Americans not to answer the census.

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