The Census, the House GOP, and the Founders
Via Business Week: Killing the American Community Survey Blinds Business
On May 9 the House voted to kill the American Community Survey, which collects data on some 3 million households each year and is the largest survey next to the decennial census. The ACS—which has a long bipartisan history, including its funding in the mid-1990s and full implementation in 2005—provides data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are spent annually. Businesses also rely heavily on it to do such things as decide where to build new stores, hire new employees, and get valuable insights on consumer spending habits.
Proponents of the ACS argue that the survey is particularly important since it forms the basis of so much other data. “The loss of the American Community Survey will cause chaos and inefficiency in the operations of business and government in the U.S.,” says Andrew Reamer, a research professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. In 2010, Reamer published a report for the Brookings Institution measuring the overall impact of the ACS.
In a statement released on May 10, the Census Bureau said eliminating the ACS would “mark the first time in the country’s history that we would not collect and share vital economic and demographic measures of the country. These cuts would also keep us from conducting the 2012 economic census. Eliminating the American Community Survey would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to contain the costs of the 2020 census.”
Contacted last week, economists at conservative think tanks Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation all expressed support for the data-gathering agencies since all three rely heavily on the statistics they produce to study the economy. “Those agencies are essential,” says Phillip Swagel, an economist and nonresident scholar at AEI. “The data they provide really tell us what’s going on in the economy. This shouldn’t be a political issue.”
However, Representative Daniel Webster (R-FL) doesn’t like the survey:
“It would seem that these questions hardly fit the scope of what was intended or required by the Constitution,” said Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), author of the amendment.
“This survey is inappropriate for taxpayer dollars,” Webster added. “It’s the definition of a breach of personal privacy. It’s the picture of what’s wrong in Washington, D.C. It’s unconstitutional.”
He notes that the Constitution only requires enumeration of persons (video here).
A Huffington Post piece claims that a survey of this nature has been in place since 1790 when Thomas Jefferson ran the census. I can actually find no evidence for that assertion (and, indeed, the census was run via the judicial branch employing US Marshalls in 1790, it would seem). Further, in fairness, the types of questions that Webster notes in the clip above does were clearly not asked in the days of Jefferson (as such, the HuffPo piece is inaccurate).
However (and this is a big however), the claims made by the above-quoted Representative Webster are still highly problematic, especially in terms of call backs to the founding.
Margo Anderson, in her book The American Census: A Social History (Yale Univ. Press, 1988) notes on page 13:
James Madison proposed a rather elaborate schedule to categorize the population by race, sex, race, and occupation. He suggested that the census could be used to explore the potential military strength of the nation (men of draft age) and the range of the economy as well as the distribution of the population.
Now, Madison’s suggestions were not followed, although the Congress did decide to ask basic questions about race, sex, and age (more than just counting, I would note). However, what this indicates is that a) even a key Framer did not see asking questions beyond the simple text of the Constitution was allowable, and b) the US government has been asking questions beyond just counting since the very first census.
One of the things that is vexing about Webster’s position is his apparent utter lack of understanding (or, at least, acknowledgment) of the fact that the purpose of the information in question is to aid in policy-making (which, I would note, comports with James Madison’s view on the usefulness of the Census back in the late 1700s).
Indeed, going back to Madison and his views on the subject, he lamented in a letter to Jefferson that he was unable to get the Senate to see the need to collect additional information:
A Bill for taking a census has passed the House of Representatives, and is with the Senate. It contained a schedule for ascertaining the component classes of the Society, a kind of information extremely requisite to the Legislator, and much wanted for the science of Political Economy. A repetition of it every ten years would hereafter afford a most curious and instructive assemblage of facts. It was thrown out by the Senate as a waste of trouble and supplying materials for idle people to make a book.
So, James Madison saw doing more than just counting as constitutionality acceptable and further saw how more information (in the bolded parts emphasized by me above) would be useful as policy-makers. Instead, he was rebuffed by the Senate who saw information as just a waste of time (like, it would seem, Representative Webster).
It is bad enough that politicians constantly call back to the founding era as some kind of proof for their present policy preferences, but it is even worse when they really don’t have a basis for their claims.
Really, if Webster thinks that survey is a waste of money that’s fine: but enough with the pretense that it is “unconstitutional” or that the Framers would have objected. Make your arguments in the now, please, and on the basis of current conditions: stop appealing to nonexistent authority that you do not understand in the first place.