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Census gets funding boost in stopgap bill

The money provides greater surety going into next year's count

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., ranking member of an Appropriations subcommittee, said census funding had bipartisan support. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo.)

The stopgap funding measure Congress passed Thursday provides $7.3 billion for the Census Bureau, giving next year’s count the resources some lawmakers and advocates have sought for months.

The measure matches an earlier Senate version of the funding bill that would have given the agency $6.7 billion for census operations and exceeds the $5.3 billion requested by President Donald Trump’s administration. Democrats in Congress, skeptical of the administration, had pushed for more funding for the count, which will be used to help decide political representation and to divvy up about $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually.

[Senate passes stopgap spending bill, sends it to Trump]

Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson, who left the agency in 2017, said the funding would provide the agency some surety going into next year. Census operations are front-loaded, he said; most of the country will respond by the end of April and followup operations hit their peak over the summer.

“A lot of the spending will happen between now and the end of June. Hiring all those people, paying all those people, keeping those offices open,” Thompson said. “They need to spend a lot of money now.”

Thompson and other former directors signed onto a letter last month urging Congress to fund the census for the full year.

Census funding does have bipartisan support. Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., the ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, called the funding measure “a good number” for census operations, even if broader spending issues have not been resolved yet.

“The census is something that is going to take place regardless, it’s not something we can put on hold,” Aderholt told CQ Roll Call.

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The Census Bureau has operated on a continuing resolution while ramping up operations in advance of next year’s enumeration. The agency plans to recruit as many as 500,000 staff to knock on doors and count households who do not respond on their own.

Already the agency has had trouble hiring. It missed goals for local outreach staff, address listers and others. Census officials have said they’re now looking to raise pay in some areas, potentially increasing costs further.

In January the agency plans to kick off a $500 million outreach and advertising campaign to raise awareness before mailers start going out in March.

Skeptical of Trump’s census efforts, particularly after the president’s failed fight to add a citizenship question to next year’s census, Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups have stepped up watchdog efforts on the census.

Rep. Steven Horsford, the Nevada Democrat who heads the CBC’s task force on census issues, said the group will focus on oversight of hiring, outreach and handling of the census’ online response option.

“Now that we have the funding, we have a good opportunity to discuss how the implementation will be realized, and they don’t have the excuse they don’t have the funds,” Horsford said.

Differences over outreach efforts

The Senate passed the stopgap measure Thursday, sending it to Trump’s desk before government funding was supposed to run out that midnight. The House passed the same bill earlier this week.

The measure carves out $90 million for Mobile Questionnaire Assistance Centers, a new Census Bureau effort that has made some Democrats and activists skeptical. 

Census officials have argued the mobile centers — basically agency staff sent with tablets and laptops to community events — will enumerate more people than brick-and-mortar centers that only averaged 20 people counted per facility in the 2010 census.

Democrats like Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz have argued that communities skeptical of the census process may have more trust with a single fixed location, and that other areas that lack community events will still need to be counted.

Horsford said he and the CBC will push the Bureau to answer more questions about implementation. 

Correction Thursday, 9:35 p.m. | An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much funding would go to the Census Bureau, and how much was designated specifically for census operations. That version also misstated the amount the White House requested for the agency.

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