WASHINGTON –- The House voted Wednesday to eliminate the detailed surveys of America that have been conducted by the Census Bureau since the nation’s earliest days.
The survey is not part of the constitutionally mandated population count, but some version of it has been done by law as part of the decennial survey since the time of Thomas Jefferson to assess the needs of the nation. It’s generally considered a vital tool for business.
Republicans, acknowledging its usefulness, attacked the survey as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, arguing that the government has no business knowing how many flush toilets someone has, for instance.
“It would seem that these questions hardly fit the scope of what was intended or required by the Constitution,” said Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), author of the amendment.
“This survey is inappropriate for taxpayer dollars,” Webster added. “It’s the definition of a breach of personal privacy. It’s the picture of what's wrong in Washington, D.C. It's unconstitutional.”
The survey used to be done every 10 years, along with the census, when 1 out of 6 Americans were required to answer the so-called “long form.” But the administration of President George W. Bush reformed the process in 2005 to do an annual survey of 250,000 households, making the survey more manageable, cheaper and more timely.
Democrats were perplexed by the move, which would deprive policymakers and businesses of vast, vital troves of data that they use to make decisions,
“The Republicans have earned a reputation as the ‘do-nothing party’ and now they want to also be the ‘know-nothing party,’ “ said Rep. Carolyn Maloney after the vote. “This vote repeals the work done by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama and six Congresses to modernize the census, and does so without even a hearing or full debate.”
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), who ran the floor debate for Democrats, seemed especially vexed.
“We've been doing surveys in the long form since 1790 as a nation," Fattah said, referring to the time when Thomas Jefferson oversaw the census. "It's critically important. The idea that we're going to leave the greatest country in the world with less information about the condition of communities and of our families -- and that we're going to do that appropriately -- defies logic.”
It was one of two attacks Wednesday on the census. Earlier, the House passed by voice vote a measure to bar the federal government from enforcing penalties against people who refuse to fill out the longer survey.
“I think it's important to have the information, but it's important that people have freedom and liberty and we do not have an intrusive federal government that would impose a fine on people if they didn't let the information come out about whether they had a flush toilet,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
It is unlikely that the Senate would pass such a measure, but it also could be attached to other legislation, as the House GOP has managed before with measures the Senate does not like. Webster said his cut would save $2.4 billion.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.