Republicans in the House and Senate have launched an attack against an annual Census poll called the American Community Survey (ACS) that asks extremely personal questions — including whether homeowners have mental problems or difficulty dressing or bathing — and is required by law to be filled out by recipients, backed by a possible $5,000 fine.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Thursday introduced a bill making participation in the ACS voluntary, S. 3079. And on Wednesday, the House approved an amendment from Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the Census Bureau from fining people who don't fill it out. Republicans acknowledged that the $5,000 fine is rarely imposed, but said its existence creates a strong incentive to answer these very personal questions from the government.
The House on Wednesday also approved an amendment from Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) to stop the annual survey altogether, which was approved 232-190.
"Failure to comply with this survey and turn over this personal information is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine," Webster said. "Given the intrusive nature of some of these questions, which are mandatory for Americans to answer under penalty of law, it would seem that these questions hardly fit the scope of what was intended or required by the Constitution.
"We need to ask ourselves whether this survey is worth $2.4 billion," he added, referring to the estimated cost of the ACS over the next decade.
The Census Bureau and supporters of the program argue that the ACS helps the government collect information needed to design federal programs. The ACS is separate from the Census conducted every 10 years, which is required under the Constitution.
Each year, 250,000 ACS surveys are mailed to people across the country, and Census says it asks about age, sex, race, family relationships, income, health insurance, education and disabilities.
The Census Bureau also stresses that compliance is mandatory. In a question-and-answer page on its site from two years ago, it poses the question, "Do I have to answer both the American Community Survey and the 2010 Census?" It answers, "Yes. Your response to both is important and required by law."
But House Republicans on Wednesday blasted the ACS for asking extremely detailed questions they say recipients should not be required to hand over to the government. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) listed several examples of questions on the survey.
"Do you have hot and cold running water?" he said, reading from the ACS. "Do you have a flush toilet? Do you have a bathtub or a shower? Do you have a sink with a faucet?
"How well does the person in this home speak English?" he continued. "Where did this person live a year ago? And give the address for that. Because of mental, physical or emotional conditions, does this person have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions? Does this person have difficulty dressing or bathing?
"How many people, including this person, rode together to work last week? How many times did this person actually leave the home, and what time did they leave the home to go to work last week? Last week, was this person laid off from their job? When did this person last work even for a few days? What was your income in the last 12 months?"
Webster argued that the ACS collects information at such a personal level, people should be more afraid of having their personal information compromised through the ACS than over Internet.
"Why would we even pass a cybersecurity bill when we are using 5,779 hired government agents to collect sensitive information from our citizens at taxpayer expense?" he asked.
Census says on its website that, "All Census Bureau employees take an oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data. Violating the oath is a serious crime. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both."
Regardless, Republicans argued this week that the ACS goes well beyond the constitutional requirement to count people for the purposes of apportioning the congressional districts.
"You need to know how many people of voting age are in a household," Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said on the House floor. "You need to know race so you can comport with constitutional provisions. You may very well need to know the gender of the people in the home so you can comport with constitutional provisions. But you don't need to know anything beyond that."