Census nonsense

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Unlike some provisions in the Constitution which require reference to outside material, such as the Federalist Papers, to clarify the Framers’ intent, the mandate in Article I requiring a decennial census is crystal clear. Section 2 directs the government to count the number of people within the United States every 10 years, period.

This provision — so straight forward in language and intent — has been twisted into something far different and more troublesome. Not only has the census become an industry unto itself, employing thousands of workers and bureaucrats at great expense to the American taxpayer, it has morphed into a mechanism for gathering vast amounts of personal information about every man, woman and child in the country.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is the American Community Survey (ACS). This 14-page survey, which the Census Bureau sends to a quarter of a million American households every month of every year, contains page after page of probing questions that have nothing whatsoever to do with counting the number of people in those homes. The ACS was first introduced by the Census Bureau in 1996, and continues to personify the relentless nosiness of Uncle Sam.

The survey includes, for example, detailed questions about peoples’ homes, whether they receive welfare benefits or have health insurance coverage, education and income levels of the primary dwellers, driving patterns, appliances in the homes, and the list goes on.

Washington backs up its quest for such information with the threat of criminal penalties for failing to answer the survey. People who don’t respond to the ACS can be fined as much as $5,000.

Republican members of Congress periodically rail against the census monster. However, both of the country’s major political parties are so wedded to gathering and using the information the census yields, for purposes each party deems important to those who elect them, that neither has exhibited the will to scale back the census to anything close to what it was intended to be. That may be changing, however — at least on the Republican side of the aisle.

Recently, an upstart Republican member of the House took a shot across the bow of the Census Bureau, and was supported by a majority of his colleagues. An amendment cutting off funding for the ACS, offered earlier this month by Florida Rep. Daniel Webster as an amendment to the Commerce Department appropriations bill, actually passed the House. According to Webster, his proposal would save taxpayers some $2.4 billion each year, in addition to putting an end to the survey’s privacy-invasive probing.

The House also passed a measure that would prohibit the federal government from levying fines against those who decline to answer the questions. There may be some question as to why this is necessary if they are defunding the ACS; however, the answer may lie in a separate proposal by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) that would make the survey voluntary.

These amendments have caused bureaucrats at the Census Bureau to go into full damage-control mode. Director Robert Groves claimed in a video posted on his blog that eliminating the ACS would utterly destroy “the nation’s statistical information about the status of the economy and the larger society.” To further support his “the-sky-is-falling” theory, Groves was quoted in The Washington Times as saying that citizens should not fear the criminal sanctions associated with the ACS, because he “could find no evidence of anyone actually having been assessed the fine.” His soothing message was undercut by his noting at the same time that keeping the penalties on the books is needed to “compel better compliance” — presumably by those individuals who were not aware of, or who did not believe, his implied promise not to enforce the fines.

These statements by the Census Bureau director are typical of Washington bureaucrats so wedded to the status quo that they will make utterly preposterous claims in order to scare legislators into funding even the most troubling activities. If history is any guide, both the Census Bureau and the American Community Survey will survive this latest challenge, even though neither should.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2008. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.