U.S. Census Should Move Online in 2010

Government is disconnected from reality. The public knows it, the media know it; in fact, everyone except Congress seems to know it. There is talk of reform one day then pork-barrel spending the next. People are fed up. If we in Congress want to show that we “get it,” we need to start going through every federal project, one-by-one, and start cutting out the fat. The Census Bureau is a good place to start.

If the Census Bureau’s budgets were an accurate reflection of any objective reality, our population would have nearly doubled every decade since 1980, which it has not. Since that time, the Bureau’s budget, like almost all aspects of government, has greatly outpaced natural forces like inflation and population growth.

At a Federal Financial Management Subcommittee hearing I chaired today, I learned that the 2010 Census is likely to once again cost nearly twice the amount of our last Census—without a corresponding doubling in our nation’s population. The 2010 Census is expected to cost at least $11.3 billion over 10 years although agency insiders speculate the cost will likely soar well beyond $12 billion.

What is particularly astonishing about our next Census is that in an age when millions of Americans pay their taxes, conduct financial transactions and shop online no plans are in place to take advantage of the Internet. By 2010, 84 percent of Americans will be Internet users, according to the Computer Industry Almanac, up from 48 percent in 2000. The Census Bureau’s plan to double the cost of the 2010 Census without incorporating the Internet makes as much sense as an agency making a major procurement of carbon paper during the advent of the Xerox machine.

Other nations are making this technological leap. The Canadian government, not widely considered to be the standard-bearer of limited government conservatism among Republicans in the United States, conducted its first online census last month. Although Canadian officials have not yet produced hard-cost saving estimates, the move does go with, rather than against, the roaring current of technological progress. In the United States, an online census would likely save millions if not billions. The process would allow the Census Bureau to virtually eliminate its paper-intensive systems, cut back dramatically on the need for house calls and allow for faster, cheaper data integration.

As usual, the fault does not rest as much with the Census Bureau as with Congress, which has offered the Census Bureau a particularly perverse set of incentives in recent years. I have no doubt the vast majority of employees at the Census Bureau are honest, hard-working individuals who welcomed the leaps from the 8-track to the iPod, and VHS to DVD, and are not opposed to a similar leap from pen and paper to the Internet.

Congress set a horrendous precedent for the Census Bureau during the 2000 Census by providing the agency with unnecessary “emergency” spending funds to address Y2K hysteria (the underlying bill was meant to support military operations in Kosovo). According to Congress’ own budget rules in effect at that time, “emergency” spending must be “necessary, sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and not permanent.” It is difficult for an institution that claimed with a straight face that the biennial census “snuck up” on us unexpectedly to now inspire the Census Bureau to incorporate new efficiencies in its system.

In the real world, practice makes perfect. But in government, the opposite is often true. Absent aggressive oversight, the more government repeats an activity the more expensive and less efficient it becomes. My hope and desire is that today’s hearing will begin to change expectations at the Census Bureau and replace the perverse incentives of the past with common sense, as demonstrated by our friends in Canada.