CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
June 16, 2012 – 1:06 p.m.
No More Questions: Census Irks Republicans
By Ben Weyl, CQ Staff
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants the federal government to ask you — and there is no delicate way to put this — whether your home has a flush toilet.
Is that question reasonable, somewhat intrusive or an unconstitutional violation of privacy? That depends on where you stand relative to a new line between the business community and the Republican House, a division that raises bigger questions about how far the government needs to go in collecting information about the population.
At stake is the American Community Survey (ACS), which the U.S. Census Bureau has developed over years and according to government agencies and businesses, provides invaluable transparency about demographic trends on the national, state and local level. The indoor-plumbing inquiry, for instance, is part of a larger set of questions about housing trends, answers to which can be used by government agencies to target resources and by retailers to target sales.
But the trends in voting that have changed the demographics in Congress are putting the collection of such detailed information in the cross hairs of staunch conservatives, who don’t see approval from the business world as sufficient justification for government activities.
Since winning a House majority in 2010 on a wave of tea party support, some of the Republicans touting lean government have clashed with the party’s traditional allies in industry, including companies that see federal programs giving them a leg up in business efficiency and global competition. For example, business groups strongly supported a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which conservatives call a distortion of the free market, and the ongoing debate over the surface transportation reauthorization has divided the party’s business and ideological supporters.
Business was one of the drivers behind the launch of the survey: It wanted a more detailed picture of the American population than any that had emerged from the typical 10-year census, and its efforts led to the 2005 launch of today’s detailed ACS. It’s a fundamental but little-noticed piece of government aimed at meeting “federal, state and local government, as well as private sector demands for current, nationally consistent data,” as the Census Bureau says in a history of the ACS.
The survey itself is now something of a key data point for a new political environment, one that measures the value of government activities in different ways and signals that agencies that seemed to be beyond politics must justify their actions. Some of the questions on the ACS used to be collected on a “long form” of the decennial census.
The annual survey collects detailed demographic data from a sample of about 2 million people. It helps determine how more than $400 billion in government funds is distributed throughout the country.
For businesses, the survey provides a trove of information about changes in economic activity and demographics and serves as a resource for companies making fundamental decisions about investment, marketing and hiring. Just as the 10-year census has documented the shift of the American population from a rural to an urban and then a suburban setting, the more detailed ACS has tracked recent changes in household sizes and commuting patterns as well as shifts that affect government priorities and corporate decisions on where to locate stores and what to put on the shelves.
But to a new generation of conservative lawmakers, the survey, which asks personal questions about individuals’ income and family structure, is a warning sign of an overreaching and out-of-control federal government.
The House recently voted to eliminate funding for the survey, stunning business groups, which are now lobbying heavily to deflect similar attacks in the Senate and to persuade House members to reverse course. In an uncertain election year, the fate of the survey remains in doubt.
There has long been a strain of distrust of the census, and in recent years conservative criticism of the survey has been rampant on the Internet; one anti-census video on YouTube has been viewed nearly 2 million times since it premiered, in 2010.
No More Questions: Census Irks Republicans
“It’s intrusive, and does the federal government really have the right to ask certain questions?” asked Poe. “One of them is, does your home have a flush toilet?”
The U.S. Chamber, which strongly supports maintaining the survey in its current form, had expected Poe’s amendment, says Timothy J. Maney, executive director of congressional and public affairs.
But the business lobby was surprised when Rep.
The power to conduct a decennial census is specified in the Constitution — Article I, Section 2, part of what’s commonly called the Enumeration clause — and it serves in part to apportion representation in the House. The courts have consistently determined that more-elaborate survey questions are constitutional. As recently as 2002, the Supreme Court declined a petition to hear a case questioning the 2000 Census.
“As early as 1870, the Supreme Court characterized as unquestionable the power of Congress to require both an enumeration and the collection of data in the census,” said Rep.
The House adopted Webster’s amendment on a near-party-line vote of 232-190.
Many GOP members were probably unfamiliar with the survey, Maney says, and were simply “voting with their guts.” The business community is in the process of “re-educating” lawmakers, he says.
In a letter sent last month to every senator and signed by more than two dozen organizations, the business advocates described the “alarming action” taken by the House in adopting the Poe and Webster amendments.
Signers include the Chamber, the National Retail Federation and the Mortgage Bankers Association, who said they depend on the survey for sales forecasting, small-business lending, opening new facilities and more.
“Census data is the building block of market research that our country’s business community uses daily to [make] economic decisions,” they wrote. “The ACS is the only source of objective, consistent and comprehensive information about the nation’s social, economic and demographic characteristics down to the neighborhood level.”
Business officials are now meeting with leaders in the House and Senate, as well as with Senate appropriators, to preserve funding for the survey.
No More Questions: Census Irks Republicans
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its spending bill to fund the Census Bureau in April, but it is unclear when the measure will reach the Senate floor, and an amendment to target the survey is possible. The day after the House backed the amendments curtailing the survey, Sen.
With the support of the Senate’s Democratic majority and of business-friendly Republicans, there are probably enough votes to defeat an anti-survey amendment. But then the House and Senate would have to resolve differences in a conference, and the outcome of that is anybody’s guess in this volatile election year.
There has been talk of a compromise that would maintain funding for the survey but make participation voluntary. Advocates of the survey, however, say making participation voluntary would diminish the reliability of its findings. Also, conducting the survey would cost more because Census workers would have to spend more time following up on data collection.
“I’d be quite concerned,” says Audrey Wall, an official at the Council of State Governments. “Sometimes you need to require that people answer some of their questions. This is how you know what’s happening at the neighborhood level.”
The federal government does indeed have a reason for asking about individuals’ plumbing facilities. The data is used to allocate federal housing subsidies to local governments, helping Americans gain access to safe and decent housing. To assess the quality of housing stock in neighborhoods throughout the country, the Department of Housing and Urban Development uses that information — including the prevalence of that indoor plumbing.
It’s no surprise, then, that several housing-industry groups, including the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors, signed on to the Chamber-led letter to lawmakers urging support for the survey.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Fiscal 2013 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations (