Not without reason, conservatives bring attention to many federal policies and programs that bring Washington bureaucrats into areas best handled by states, localities or the private sector. On issues ranging from agriculture to education, much that the federal government does could stand for elimination. And at least a few things within the power of Congress, such as delivering the mail and building roads, could stand for more private participation than now exists.
Indeed, outside of the actual operation of government, there’s only one program that the plain language of the constitution actually requires the government to carry out: the decennial census. That’s why it’s more than a little disturbing that the census scheduled to start only a little more than two years from now remains understaffed and underfunded.
Conducting a census plays such a central role in the Constitution for good reason: it’s the basis for deciding how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives as well as the drawing of boundaries for nearly all state and local electoral districts. The census also plays into the ways states receive federal money for everything from education to housing.
If the Census Bureau doesn’t count accurately, some places get more money and power than they deserve, others less. Since many counts can’t be changed for a decade, the costs of many wrong decisions in the census will get multiplied by 10. Given that the stakes are enormous — the federal government will likely spend more than $50 trillion between 2020 and 2030 — paying a little more to get things right is a very good investment.
Right now, America is in serious danger of the census going wrong. The Census Bureau hasn’t had a permanent director since June and a number of other high positions remain vacant. This is a major problem, since the bureau needs to begin a massive staff-up simply to handle the thousands of short-term employees it will need in 2020. New systems — this next census will be the first one with a major online component — need testing, too.
Since the count needs to be conducted by the end of 2020 no matter what, rushing to get systems tested, having to hire in a panic or falling back on older, less-computerized methods is almost certain to add costs and complexity to a process that’s almost certain to exceed $12 billion in any case. Congress’ current goal of having the 2020 census cost no more than the 2010 census will be impossible to meet unless it’s possible to use better, cheaper systems than we did then.
Right now, the Trump administration is proposing what’s basically level funding for an agency that needs more money for testing and hiring now. And the people running the show should have been in place months ago.
People on the both ends of the political spectrum will, of course, always advance their own causes with the census. More progressive advocacy groups will often claim that sinister forces work to undercount groups that they favor. Libertarians, mostly on the right, will often complain the entire process is an infringement on personal liberty and asks things that government doesn’t need to know. New systems, requests for data, and ways of counting always deserve careful scrutiny to make sure they are lawful, useful and accurate. Letting any one group or party dominate the census process is a terrible idea.
But, for now, the steps are obvious. President Trump needs to name a competent, respected person to run the Census Bureau and Congress needs to provide adequate funding to the Bureau to do its job. Spending too little to test and prepare now will end up costing taxpayers more in the end. The census is a clear mandate that the Constitution places on the federal government; getting it right is hugely important.