Failed 2020 Census Looms as Funding, Preparations Stall

Failed 2020 Census Looms as Funding, Preparations Stall
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“The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner famously wrote, “it isn’t even past.”  As the 2020 census nears, we risk reliving a constitutional crisis that paralyzed our politics for a decade exactly a century ago.

The 1920 census is remembered for two reasons: It marked the moment when America’s urban population exceeded the rural population for the first time, and Speaker Frederick Huntington Gillett, his successor Nicholas Longworth III and the House GOP for years refused to allow the legally mandated reapportionment of congressional seats among the 48 states – the only time in our nation’s history this has happened.  Editorials raged against the Republican Party and its “constitutional nullification,” but for 10 years the GOP blocked reapportionment and preserved its ill-begotten House majority. 

Fast-forward to the present.  For more than five years, the majority in Congress has studiously left the nation unprepared for the next decennial count. By underfunding preparations for the 2020 census, including not running all the national field tests that should take place in 2018, it appears the Republican leadership is pursuing a failed census.  Joining them is the Trump administration, which has yet to identify or nominate a qualified expert to serve as director of the U.S. Census Bureau, now 10 months into the president’s term.  Many observers of census preparations fear the 2020 count is already doomed to be the least reliable in half a century.

You might think Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is riding to the rescue with his recent plea to Congress for $3 billion more in census spending.  In fact, the secretary’s new plan still does not fund the advertising or partnership programs credited with making the last two head counts the most accurate in history.   Congress could make Ross a white knight on a ride to nowhere if Speaker Paul Ryan’s GOP conference fails to approve the funding in time to make a difference, if they approve the money at all.  Knowing this history, did Secretary Ross just upset the GOP plan to replay 1920, or was his announcement simply intended to camouflage Ryan’s effort to starve the census? 

I know something about the importance of running an efficient, effective census. I served as co-chairman of the congressionally mandated U.S. Census Monitoring Board that oversaw preparations for the 2000 count. I understand the political consequences that arise from a full, fair and accurate tally of every resident. So does the GOP.

I have observed over three decades how Republicans masterfully engineered every political and legal advantage in a tightly coordinated, well-executed, national strategy of partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, ballot access barriers, and voter targeting -- all founded on the tactical use of census data.  

Look at their success! Despite generally lower voter performance than Democrats nationwide, Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House, and 34 of the 50 governors’ mansions.  In 25 states, the GOP has complete control of the governorship and both houses of the legislatures, while nationally they hold 1,000 more state legislative seats than Democrats.

Therein lies the genius in planning for a second doomed census in a century.  We cannot allow this administration or Republican leaders to undermine, sabotage or sow doubts as to the validity of the census as a pretext for invalidating its findings and ignoring reapportionment.

The census has a broader impact on America’s well-being than congressional reapportionment. The bureau conducts over 100 annual surveys that are vital to measuring our economy, our communities, and mapping where we are headed as a nation.

For more than 30 years I have been fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, starting with my work on the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Later, in my role as chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities and on the boards of the Epilepsy Foundation and the American Association of People With Disabilities, I’ve fought for reliable, truthful data about the individuals that our public policies are intended to serve.  The decennial census and its annual supplement, the American Community Survey, provide the foundational information that government, academia, and the private sector rely upon to make informed choices on how to help people with disabilities thrive and succeed.  If that data is not trusted, or is somehow branded as invalid, the consequences will be devastating for individuals struggling to earn their rightful place in our communities, our businesses, and our future as one nation.  

Whether it is enforcement of civil rights laws or fair housing policies, or helping businesses to expand, or even for Congress to better understand the share of our population that will rely on Social Security disability income, the census is our national data keystone.   We should not stand still while those in Congress game the count.   Let’s see if Speaker Ryan picks up the mantle of leadership and acts on Secretary Ross’s request before the FY18 Continuing Resolution expires in December.   It will be too late to save the census from five years of neglect after December, confirming where the congressional leadership truly stands on fulfilling this constitutional mandate.

Tony Coelho is a former six-term congressman from California, House majority whip, and primary author and sponsor of the Americans With Disabilities Act. President Clinton later appointed him as co-chairman of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board.

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