Census Bureau: From Commerce to independence?

Monday - 2/16/2009, 7:25am EST

WFED's Max Cacas reports

Previewing a bill that could change the future of the U.S. Census Bureau.

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By Max Cacas
FederalNewsRadio

Over the last several years, the 2010 decennial census has been the subject of intense scrutiny because of countless problems associated with a modernization program. Now, a New York Congresswoman is dusting off a proposal she says will get to the real core of the Census Bureau's problems.

Last year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D.-NY) introduced HR 7069, the "Restoring the Integrity of American Statistics Act of 2008". Now, she says that when Congress returns to session in the next week or so, she plans on re-introducing her bill in the House.

One of the problems that the census always has is that we conduct the census every 10 years, and it's vitally important. But you must plan it over ten years. If you misappropriate, or don't appropriate enough funds, you can get off schedule so that you can't have a proper census.

One of the challenges is that the Census is constantly fighting for its funds because Commerce wants to take them because, "we don't need to fund the census now, it's going to be in ten years, so we're going to take that money away, and put it here where we think we need it." There's always a scramble for money, but the Census is very important, so if it was independent, Commerce could not come in and take the money away.

We did some research, and found some people who know a thing or two about the census who like Maloney's bill. Among them, Professor Kenneth Prewitt from Columbia University in New York. He's a former Census Bureau Director from 1998 to 2001, and the official who helped direct the last decennial Census.

I'm very supportive, I was one of six living ex-directors of the Census Bureau to sign a letter of endorsement. I think every living ex-director at the time signed that letter. Each of us had an experience with our own Departments of Commerce that suggested that we might have done the job more efficiently, might have been able to report to Congress with more specificity and more quickly if we were not housed inside the Department of Commerce.

Prewitt also told FederalNewsRadio that in 2003, he wrote a scholarly paper suggesting that the Census Bureau might run better outside of the Department of Commerce, as an independent agency modeled after NASA, the National Institutes of Health, or the National Science Foundation.

Prewitt says he sees the Census Bureau's activities as "fundamentally scientific in nature."

If approved, Maloney's bill would make the Census Bureau an independent agency only after the 2010 decennial census takes place.

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