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Bill Increasing U.S. Census Bureau Autonomy Fizzles

1 February 2011 1,797 views No Comment
This column is written to inform ASA members about what the ASA is doing to promote the inclusion of statistics in policymaking and the funding of statistics research. To suggest science policy topics for the ASA to address, contact ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Pierson-color copySteve Pierson earned his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota. He spent eight years in the Physics Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became head of government relations at the American Physical Society before joining the ASA as director of science policy.

A bill to strengthen the U.S. Census Bureau’s autonomy cleared the United States Senate unanimously in the closing days of the lame duck Congress but—despite the efforts of the ASA, members of Congress, and many others—failed to muster the votes necessary in the House of Representatives to send it to President Barack Obama’s desk. Any efforts to achieve the important and long-recognized reforms of the largest statistical agency—and major scientific agency—must start over in the new Congress.

The Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act of 2010 (H.R. 4945/S. 3167) would have made the Census Bureau more autonomous within the Commerce Department through provisions including a direct report to the secretary of commerce, a fixed five-year term for the director, independent testimony to Congress, and more control over the Census Bureau’s operations and management. (Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau director reports to the commerce under secretary for economic affairs, as does the Bureau for Economic Analysis director.)

Memo Allows Government Scientists to Serve in Professional Societies
A December 17, 2010, memo from John Holdren, Office of Science and Technology Policy director, contained a provision to promote professional development of government scientists by allowing their “full participation in professional or scholarly societies, … including removing barriers for serving as officers or on governing boards of such societies.” The ASA welcomed the news because of its practice of having a president and vice-president serve from the government sector every three years. Also, government scientists serve important roles in sections, chapters, and committees. Read more in my January 3 blog post, “Obama Administration Science Integrity Memo Includes Good News for ASA Governance and Government Statisticians: More Steps Necessary,” under Recent Blogs.

The statistical community and Census Bureau stakeholders—including the ASA Board of Directors, the seven living former Census Bureau directors, Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, Consortium of Social Science Associations, American Association for Public Opinion Research, and dozens of other organizations—supported the bill. Further, the National Academies’ Principles and Practices of a Federal Statistical Agency lists the merits of the bill’s main components and the U.S. General Accountability Office’s December 14 report, 2010 Census, discusses the benefits the continuity of five-year terms would provide. (For details, see my December 14 blog post, “House to Take up Census Autonomy Bill Today: ASA Members Urged to Voice Support,” under Recent Blogs.

The Census Bureau would have benefitted immensely from the reforms in this bill. As a major science agency whose statistical products inform our democratic process and help guide hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assistance, the U.S. Census Bureau must be objective and insulated from improper influence, in both reality and perception. The fixed term for the director, the direct report to the secretary, and the increased autonomy would have bolstered the Census Bureau’s independence. It also would have improved the bureau’s efficiency and nimbleness by streamlining decision processes and ensuring continuity in leadership.

In both 1999 and 2009, the Census Bureau operated without a Senate-confirmed director during final preparations for the decennial census and, as the Government Accountability Office report 2010 Census observes, the average tenure of the past 11 census directors is about three years. The fixed term would help avoid leadership gaps during critical decennial census planning stages and facilitate the longer-term planning so vital to decennial censuses.

After precursor bills making the U.S. Census Bureau independent failed to gain sufficient support, H.R. 4945/S. 3167 was introduced in March of 2010 with the bicameral and bipartisan sponsorship of Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA). The key Senate census oversight committee promptly approved the bill in April but, despite outside requests, the House census oversight body—the Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee—failed to act on the bill.

With the 111th Congress focused on high-profile bills in the lame duck Congress, the Senate quietly and unanimously passed S. 3167 on December 8, 2010, with two changes. One eliminated a provision allowing the census director to submit a budget request to Congress before it has been vetted by the administration and the other added a provision establishing a technology advisory committee to “make recommendations to the director and publish reports on the use of commercially available technologies and services to improve efficiencies and manage costs in the implementation of the census and census-related activities.”

Cosponsors Needed for STAT Act of 2011
The bill to promote K–12 statistics education—the Statistical Teaching, Aptitude, and Training Act of 2010 (STAT Act of 2010), introduced by Rep. Dave Loebsack (IA-D) in September—attracted 10 cosponsors in the 111th Congress, thanks to the work of ASA members.

    The bill will be reintroduced early in the 112th Congress as the STAT Act of 2011, and the ASA will again urge cosponsorship. To help your U.S. representative understand the importance of K–12 education and the work statisticians do, sign up for the ASA Statistical Literacy Grassroots Campaign.

      You will be provided with assistance for setting up and preparing for a meeting with your representative in his/her home district. The following chapters have been active in this campaign: Boston, Colorado/Wyoming, Hawaii, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Bay Area.

        Cosponsors of the STAT Act of 2010 were Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU), Michael Capuano (D-MA), Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Barney Frank (D-MA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Edward Markey (D-MA), James McGovern (D-MA), Jared Polis (D-CO), David Price (D-NC), and Mike Quigley (D-IL).

        With time quickly running out in the 111th Congress, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer agreed to bring up S. 3167 under suspension of rules, thereby disallowing amendments but requiring a two-thirds majority. (The House considered the Senate-passed version of the bill because there would not have been time to reconcile differing versions of the bill had the House passed its own version.)

        ASA members actively supported this effort by organizing a letter signed by 31 organizations urging House passage. The ASA also issued a press release with quotes from ASA past-presidents Sally Morton and Vincent Barabba, the latter a former census director. Additionally, the ASA issued its first membership-wide alert with an email from Morton asking all members in the United States to call their U.S. representatives and push for support of S. 3167.

        With 201 votes in favor and 167 votes against, the bill failed to pass on a largely party-line vote—Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), leading Republican opposition to the bill, contended the bill needed more consideration—citing a lack of hearings on the bill—and noted Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke’s opposition.

        The ASA will monitor any Census Bureau reform efforts in the new Congress and strive to work with the architects of any new bills.

        Science Policy Actions

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          ASA signs letters urging House passage of S. 3167, “Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act of 2010.”

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