WASHINGTON -- Six of the last seven directors of the U.S. Census Bureau fear proposed cuts to the bureau's budget will blind the nation's financial experts. They're urging congressional leaders to reconsider reductions that could end the gathering of crucial economic data for the first time in 200 years.
The directors, whose service spans more than 40 years and six presidents of both parties, fear that pound-foolish budget slashing will leave the Census Bureau unable to perform next year's Economic Census, a survey that's done every five years and underpins nearly all of the country's major economic analyses.
The data are used by everyone from government number-crunchers to private businesses to make decisions -- decisions that the Census bosses argue are especially vital these days as policy makers try to pull the country out of an economic quagmire.
"Going without a 2012 Economic Census in the midst of the worst recession in half a century is akin to turning off the country's economic GPS at the very moment it is critically needed," they write in a letter to lawmakers obtained by The Huffington Post that was expected to be sent Thursday.
The signers are Vincent Barabba (1973-1976, 1979-1981), Barbara Everitt Bryant (1989-1993), Martha Farnsworth Riche (1994-1998), Kenneth Prewitt (1998-2001), Charles Louis Kincannon (2002-2008) and Steven Murdock (2008-2009).
"Without the Economic Census, public and private decision-makers would have available a 2007 model of our economy until 2022," they warn.
Essentially, that would mean federal and private decision makers would be guessing about things as basic as the country's gross domestic product, let alone more specific measures of the economy.
"It is a fundamental building block of Gross Domestic Product, national income and product accounts, measures of industrial productivity, price indices, and annual and quarterly indicators of business activity -- essential tools for intelligent, responsive national economic policy, especially policy relevant to the job-creating results of entrepreneurship," the former Census directors write.
"Businesses large and small rely on Economic Census data to guide investment decisions. State and local governments use it for accurate forecasting of revenues and employment of proposed economic development projects," they point out. "For decades, the Economic Census has been the core metric helping entrepreneurs and government grow the U.S. economy into the world's strongest and most vibrant engine of economic activity."
Yet the House of Representatives has proposed slashing $294 million from the Census Bureau's $1.15 billion budget -- some 25 percent -- which would effectively cut the Economic Census. The Senate is proposing a smaller $206 million cut, which would still likely require the agency to scale back on economic data collection.
The Senate Appropriations Committee goes so far as to affirm the importance of the Economic Census, even as it recommends cuts, and essentially orders the agency to maintain the financial study in a pending bill.
"The Committee strongly supports the Economic Census, and directs the Bureau to preserve funding when considering reductions," the bill states. One source familiar with the agency said it could try to comply with that command by doing a less-thorough job with fewer data samples, which would provide a less accurate picture.
The committee suggests looking elsewhere for cuts. "Any programmatic decreases should first focus on reductions to periodic censuses and agency-wide administrative cost savings," the Senate appropriators urge.
But to preserve the full economic survey would cost about $124 million. And while the committee suggests cutting other periodic surveys, it also admonishes the Census Bureau to keep up its planning for the next decennial survey, to which the bureau is devoting $100 million.
Following the Senate instructions would leave a little more than two-thirds of the agency's remaining budget to bear the full cuts.
The former directors are urging Congress to think over the consequences, noting that a failure to fund the collection of economic data would mark a radical and disturbing departure from two centuries of practice.
"This Congress should not be the first in history to deny itself, the executive, state and local governments and the nation's business community information that the Founders and every Congress since have judged essential for a growing nation," they write.