While we’re all on the subject of government personnel moves, you may have missed the news that Census Bureau Director John Thompson unexpectedly resigned from his position Tuesday. Nobody seems to be quite sure why the man is leaving. But he’s doing so in the midst of a battle over funding the statistical agency, which is finding itself starved for cash at the precise moment it has to ramp up for the all-important 2020 census.
This is alarming. The decennial census is critical to ensuring that Americans are fairly represented in Washington, since it’s used as the basis for congressional redistricting. A mishandled census could undercount poor and minority populations, putting some states and many cities at a demographic disadvantage. That alone makes the possibility that Trump might appoint a political hack to replace Thompson frightening. But, to make matters worse, the administration has reportedly toyed with the idea of adding a question to the once-a-decade survey about immigration status, which some experts believe could scare many households out of responding. When a new director comes in—as of now, the administration doesn’t have a replacement picked—it’s conceivable that plan may get a new life.
Thompson has been the census’ director since 2013, and though his term technically ended in December, he was expected to stay on for at least a while longer. His goodbye statement didn’t offer any real explanation for his move—“My tenure at the Census Bureau has been a richly rewarding capstone to my federal career,” it said. But as Tara Bahrampour notes at the Washington Post, it comes just shortly after Congress handed the census an appropriation “that critics say is woefully inadequate.” Thompson also testified to Congress last week that a snazzy new electronic data collection system that was meant to save expenses would cost 50 percent more than expected. A Republican committee chair called the overrun “a real source of concern.”
The bureau has to keep a lid on its budget because Congress instructed it not to spend a penny more on the 2020 census than it did on its effort in 2010, which turned out to be the most expensive population count in the government’s history after costs spiked. There may have been good reason for that—the U.S. is growing every year, after all; more and more households rely on trickier-to-look-up mobile phones instead of landlines; and the country has a increasing population of minorities and non-English speakers, who can be trickier to count.
At the moment, the Census Bureau is struggling with the task the Republicans have set of accomplishing more with less. T-minus three years from the census, the bureau typically ramps up its spending for several years of “dress rehearsals,” in which it tries out new systems and irons out the kinks to make sure everything goes according to plan once it’s time for the real survey. “These last Census tests are really, really of utmost importance in ensuring that everything has been planned. That the forms you want to use, the procedures you want to use, are effective and tested,” former Census Bureau Director Steve Murdock, now a professor at Rice University, told me in February. “I would say you really can’t overestimate the importance of the pre-census activities.”
They may be especially key this year, given the launch of the new digital data system, which is meant to cut down on the need for expensive field offices and for hiring census takers to canvas neighborhoods. But for now, the census isn’t getting its usual appropriations bump, and as Bahrampour wrote last month, “The bureau is so short on funds that it has cancelled tests that were planned for this year and suspended development of a communications campaign.” The possibility that the agency simply won’t be adequately prepared in three years, leading to a botched count, doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
The question of whether the Trump administration will try to change the census questionnaire in potentially damaging ways is still mostly speculative. One of the many draft executive orders that circulated at the start of the administration—such heady days, weren’t they?—would have added a question about immigration status to a section of the census that actually no longer exists. That tells you how well the idea was thought out. But the idea hasn’t gone away, and whomever the administration selects to fill Thompson’s shoes might not push back.
So, on the one hand, we should probably worry that the Census Bureau now has a leadership gap as it struggles to prepare for a crucial undertaking that’s could determine America’s balance of political power. On the other hand, how badly do you really want a Trump appointee filling that role?