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The Census, the House GOP, and the Founders

Via Business WeekKilling 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.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hey Norm says:

    Why do Republicans hate business so much?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  2. Jeremy says:

    I’m a libertarian and even I think the ACS was a good thing. I’m kinda annoyed that it’s being schwacked.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  3. merl says:

    Right wingers worship the Bible and the Constitution and don’t know a damn thing about either one.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 5

  4. Fiona says:

    The kind of information gathered by the census has been a treasure trove for historians. It would be a shame to see Congress cut this program. From what I’ve read, the Senate isn’t necessarily on board with the idea.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  5. PD Shaw says:

    I’m confused, the ACS is not the census, is it? The Constitution says the census can include anything the legislature wants (as Congress “shall be Law direct”), but it doesn’t say anything one way or the other about additional polls or surveys.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Who knew that Republicans hated economic development so much?

    Apparently they’ve even managed to piss off the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  7. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @PD Shaw: No, the ACS is not the Census. It is the annual detailed survey that was developed to sample a small segment of the population about a plethora of topics. If you remember your 2010 Census form, it was only around 10 questions – the extrapolation of data from the ACS is one of the main reasons that the 2010 census was able to be so short (and thus less expensive to run).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  8. Rob in CT says:

    Information gathering via survey of the public: bad. Unconstitutional!

    Information gathering by secretly spying on Americans: good! Essential!

    Blech.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  9. If the ACS is so important to business, why don’t they organize and pay for it? Collecting demographic data so that businesses can make money more efficiently is not a legitimate use of tax dollars.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 5

  10. Also, I wonder if they law requiring you to complete the ACS form is unconstitutional on either fourth of fifth ammendment grounds? If I ever get one, I’m tempted to try sending it back with every question answered “I hereby invoke my fifth ammendment rights and decline to answer this question”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. Moosebreath says:

    Stormy Dragon,

    “If the ACS is so important to business, why don’t they organize and pay for it?”

    Two competing explanations:

    1. because if it can be paid for by the taxpayers, and the businesses who use it and their shareholders pay less than 100% of taxes, it is a transfer from the people who don’t use it to those who do. Just another example of class warfare in favor of the rich.

    2. because the rate such surveys are returned is likely to be a whole lot lower if it doesn’t come from the government, so the data will be less accurate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  12. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The article – since it is a Businessweek article – focuses on the business effects. However, the data is also used by state and local governments in planning, budgeting, and economic development. That business is able to access the data is a side effect, not the purpose.

    It also makes the actual 10-year Census operating more quickly and at less expense, since there are fewer demographic questions that need to be asked of everyone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  13. Loviara says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Wow, over the past few months as the Republicans waged there race to the bottom you had drifted into the realm of adulthood with your conservative yet sane and dare I say it balanced comments. But then we get this,

    If the ACS is so important to business, why don’t they organize and pay for it?

    another blind eyed conservative attack on a governmental program without any touchstone to the facts. From the front page of the ACS website

    What is the American Community Survey?

    The American Community Survey (ACS) is an ongoing survey that provides data every year — giving communities the current information they need to plan investments and services. Information from the survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year.

    Do you see anywhere in that statement where they mention private businesses?

    I know after 40+ years of Reaganite anti-government indoctrination, it has become a reflect action for Republicans/Conservatives to immediately lash out at any governmental program. But as someone who seems to actually be serious about government and governing I would suggest you rethink your comment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  14. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Let’s see, Rep. Webster listed four objections to the survey: (1) that it’s overbroad with respect to the defined purpose of the Census, (2) that it’s a waste of taxpayer money, (3) that it infringes upon privacy rights, (4) that he thinks it’s unconstitutional.

    Can objection No. 1 be contested with a straight face? Obviously not. That doesn’t mean the survey is a bad thing, but it goes without saying it’s not necessary to pose demographic and related questions simply to count people.

    Objection No. 2 is a subjective opinion. You would think in this era of trillion dollar budget deficits and 100-plus percent debt-to-GDP ratios that an effort to cut federal spending would receive more respect, especially from quarters in which the deficit and the debt are claimed to matter. Perhaps no good deed can go unpunished, at least not on the Internet. Or at least if a Republican is involved.

    Objection No. 3 is a legitimate concern, isn’t it? Exactly how much personal information do we want Uncle Sam to be collecting from citizens?

    Regarding Objection No. 4, the Congressman is being sold short.

    There are all sorts of principles of statutory and Constitutional interpretation. One such principle is that of “plain meaning.” Another such principle holds that items debated and defeated prior to enactment of a law can be used as evidence that such items de facto are proscribed. Doe vs. Chao is a recent SCOTUS case (2004) in which that latter principle was applied to a federal statute.

    If you juxtapose the plain meaning and defeated proposal principles to the survey in question you could make a quite colorable argument, since the Constitution only speaks of a literal head count, and that Madison’s proposed survey was rejected, that the survey itself is unconsitutional. Perhaps it’s not the greatest argument ever made. It sure as hell wouldn’t be the most spurious, however.

    So in the final analysis I’m not sure that Rep. Webster is quite the idiot the main blog author makes him out to be.

    Lastly, if the survey really is as valuable to businesses as its proponents claim, isn’t it obvious that businesses simply will fund a replacement? With federal taxpayers currently footing the bill isn’t this really an example of corporate welfare? Isn’t that supposed to be verboten on the Internet? Along those lines if the likes of the CATO Institute can’t live without the survey, don’t they have enough private endowment money easily to fund a replacement?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 8

  15. @Loviara:

    Do you see anywhere in that statement where they mention private businesses?

    I don’t see where private business is mentioned anywhere in the Wikipedia entry on Fermat’s Last Theorem either. I’m not sure why you expect a response to a specific article (which is entirely focussed on the business value of the ACS) should need to be relevant to some other article.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. al-Ameda says:

    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.”

    Mr. Webster is a perfect example of how dumbed down America has become. At the very least a comprehensive census and the ACS provides us with a tremendous amount of data that benefits business and commerce, and academic research.

    Privacy concerns? Unconstitutional? Please. Webster is depressing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  17. @Gromitt Gunn:

    However, the data is also used by state and local governments in planning, budgeting, and economic development.

    I’m sure the local government could get all kinds of useful planning information from being able to randomly search people’s houses, read all their mail, etc. too. The reason we have the fourth and fifth ammendments is because we recognize the government shouldn’t be empowered to go poking around in the private details of people’s personally lives just to satisfy beuracratic curiousity. If people wish to voluntarily provide that information, I have no problem with it. My objection is to the idea that the census can be justification to legally compell people into turning over information that it would clearly be unconstituional for the government to demand under other circumstances.

    And this isn’t just theoretical. We know that the US census bureau assisted the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII by giving the Secret Service supposedly confidential data on where people of Japanese descent were living to assist the government in rounding them up:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=confirmed-the-us-census-b&sc=I100322

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  18. PD Shaw says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The federal government also used the 1840 census in a way that concluded that most freed people of color were insane. Which was then used by people like Calhoun to argue for the extension of the benevolent institution of slavery as a moral necessity. In some communities the percentage of insane people of color was greater than 100% !!!

    I never think people are crazy to worry about mischief in the census, there are too many historical examples.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  19. PD Shaw says:

    I think it might be useful to distinguish the decennial Census (THE Census) from other censuses.

    From pretty early on, the federal government has conducted special censuses. In 1815, the federal government conducted a special census in Indiana in relationship to whether to give Indiana statehood. James Madison was President, and I’m not aware of complaints that the only census authorized was THE decennial census.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. @al-Ameda:

    Privacy concerns? Unconstitutional? Please. Webster is depressing.

    It always amuses me how the left complains that the non-libertarian parts of the right reject the notion of a constitutional right to privacy, only to handwave libertarian privacy concerns as paranoia. Perhaps if constitutional protections for privacy extended to something other than abortions there would be broader support for it. As it is, the left seems happy to demand government access to all kinds of personal information if it’s useful for forwarding their various policy agenda.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  21. Hey Norm says:

    Oh my…the Constitution only mentions a head count so that’s all we can do.
    It also doesn’t mention computers so the Government shouldn’t be using those either
    How f’ing stupid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  22. John Broughton says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Exactly right. People *hated* the long form of the 10-year Census, and their unwillingness to complete it made the data questionable. With the implementation of ACS, *everyone* got the short form in 2010. Meanwhile, because ACS is truly random and done on a rolling basis, businesses and the government and – yes – private citizens have much better information *between* 10-year censuses, information they can all use to make *better* decisions. (That better information is in the aggregate – the Census Bureau has successfully protected the privacy of individuals who respond to its surveys.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  23. @John Broughton:

    That better information is in the aggregate – the Census Bureau has successfully protected the privacy of individuals who respond to its surveys.

    This is simply not true. We know they handed over confidential data on Japanese Americans in the 1940’s. We know they handed over confidential data on Arab Americans in 2002. What additional violations of privacy don’t we know about? You seriously expect me to believe that DHS assiduously respects privacy laws with respect to census data when they don’t in any other situation?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    We know they handed over confidential data on Arab Americans in 2002.

    And NOW you complain?????

    Look, right wingers demanded this power and now it is abused (as so many of us on the left said it would be) and you want us to be shocked? SHOCKED?????

    Stormy, let me say this in the most polite way I can:

    Never mind, I can not say it politely.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. gVOR08 says:

    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

    Webster is a Republican. “Data, we don’t need no stinking data.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  26. grower says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: I worked for the Census, and helped conduct this survey. I was told that it was an “ongoing” survey that would eventually evaluate every single household in the United States. To be honest, my ethical objections to such a thing were the main reason I quit the Census Bureau. The government has no business knowing how many bathrooms are in my house or how long it takes me to get to work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  27. Barry says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “Objection No. 3 is a legitimate concern, isn’t it? Exactly how much personal information do we want Uncle Sam to be collecting from citizens? ”

    That’s not something that the GOP worries about when agencies not Constitutionally authorized hoover up everything they can about you (please note that the NSA, CIA and USAF are not authorized under the Constitution).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Barry says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “The reason we have the fourth and fifth ammendments is because we recognize the government shouldn’t be empowered to go poking around in the private details of people’s personally lives just to satisfy beuracratic curiousity.”

    Who’s this we, right-winger? The right *hates* the fourth and fifth amendments, and loooooooves themselves massive government surveillance and searches.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Linda says:

    If I do not want to reveal my “emotional state” to the federal government in the survey, I could be fined up to $5,000? I’m glad Mr. Webster, my representative who beat Alan Grayson by 17% (I recollect), is calling out this intrusive survey. He’s got three groups attacking him: 1. The Census Bureau, which as a government agency, will attack anybody who wants to cut its budget 2. Think-Tanks who want access to this “free” information 3. The business community who also wants access to this “free” information. This kind of survey should not be mandatory and should not be funded by the taxpayers. Webster is right.

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