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GOP Census Bill Would Eliminate America's Economic Indicators (UPDATE)

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Rep. Jeff Duncan has introduced a bill to stop nearly all U.S. Census surveys. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call, File)
Rep. Jeff Duncan has introduced a bill to stop nearly all U.S. Census surveys. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call, File)

WASHINGTON -- A group of Republicans are cooking up legislation that could give President Barack Obama an unintentional assist with disagreeable unemployment numbers -- by eliminating the key economic statistic altogether.

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), would bar the U.S. Census Bureau from conducting nearly all surveys except for a decennial population count. Such a step that would end the government's ability to provide reliable estimates of the employment rate. Indeed, the government would not be able to produce any of the major economic indices that move markets every month, said multiple statistics experts, who were aghast at the proposal.

"They simply wouldn't exist. We won't have an unemployment rate," said Ken Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census who is now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University.

"I don't know how the market reacts if there is suddenly no unemployment rate at the start of the month," Prewitt said. "How does the market react if we don't have a GDP [gross domestic product]?"

"Do they understand that these data that the Census Bureau collects are fundamental to everything else that's done?" asked Maurine Haver, founder of business research firm Haver Analytics and a past president of the National Association for Business Economics. "They think the country doesn't need to know how many people are unemployed, either?"

A spokesman for Duncan declined to explain why the congressman wants to eliminate such data or even whether he understands that the data would be compromised by his bill, which has 10 co-sponsors.

But the proposed Census Reform Act is explicit in its intent to end nearly every survey the Census conducts, mandating the "repeal" of the nation's agricultural census, economic census, government census and mid-decade census. It would also bar the bureau from carrying out the American Community Survey (ACS), which the House voted last year to end, although the Senate let that measure die.

There is very little done by the government or big businesses that does not at some level depend on the reams of information provided by the Census surveys, from writing regulations and distributing federal services to rolling out new products and finding customers. The ACS is an ongoing survey that collects data every month, instead of every 10 years, so that governments and businesses have current information.

The primary motivation for the bill appears to be striking down the ACS, which Duncan spokesman Allen Klump said had been the subject of numerous constituent complaints as overly intrusive.

Independent observers had a hard time wrapping their minds around the legislation.

"This learning is valuable in so many ways -- in terms of helping the government allocate resources, allowing researchers to deepen our understanding of our social and cultural life, allowing business to make decisions about how to target customers and thereby become more profitable, and so on," said John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University.

"It's hard to take this seriously because they're really saying also they don't want GDP. They want no facts about what's going on in the U.S. economy," said Haver. "It's so fundamental to a free society that we have this kind of information, I can't fathom where they're coming from. I really can't."

"It's so unimaginable. It would be like saying we don't need policemen anymore, we don't need firemen anymore," said Prewitt. "To say suddenly we don't need statistical information about the American economy, or American society, or American demography, or American trade, or whatever -- it's an Alice in Wonderland moment."

Haver said she understands that a certain segment of American society distrusts the government and thinks the Census Bureau gathers data as some sort of prelude to dictatorship. But she noted that the information gathered is often anything but helpful to authorities.

"If it were Obama's dictatorship... I don't think it would have been in his interests seeking reelection to have put out data that showed the economy actually worsened under his presidency," Haver said.

"It's these government surveys that have told us the truth about what happened," she added. "I'm sure the people running [Obama's] campaign would have loved the unemployment rate to have been 2 percent. If we didn't have any figures, they could have said it was 2 percent."

Just as the House effort to stop the ACS went nowhere in the Senate last year, the current bill looks similarly likely to die there.

But supporters of the Census Bureau and of government-backed science are acutely aware that pieces of such measures have a way of getting attached to higher-priority legislation. In March, a measure from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that bars the National Science Foundation from doing political science research this year slid through the Senate attached to legislation to keep the government running.

And Duncan's bill comes as Congress has already proposed slashing the Census budget 13 percent below the president's request, and the bureau lacks a director to complain. There is also no secretary or deputy secretary at the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau and would generally advocate its cause in Congress.

Haver suspects the move to ban data is essentially a sop to the conservative base.

"There are those users of the data, like myself, who say this is so crazy, they just couldn't possibly believe it, so it has to be something they're just throwing out there because they want to be able to cite it in some tea party affair someplace," she said.

Haver also suggested there is a fundamental divide between people who are interested in solid, reality-based data and those who are not.

"If you know what you think, you don't need information to help you assess what's going on," she said. "The people that need information are the people who use it because they really want the truth, not people who think that because they believe it, it becomes the truth."

UPDATE: Wednesday, May 1 -- Rep. Duncan's office responded to reports of his bill on Wednesday afternoon, arguing that government surveys should be voluntary and driven by industry. He said, "It's perfectly reasonable for someone to be hesitant to share their personal information with the government."

Read Duncan's press release:

WASHINGTON, DC -- Recently, Congressman Jeff Duncan of South Carolina introduced HR 1638, The Census Reform Act of 2013. This bill aims to repeal the authority of the government to conduct mandatory and invasive census surveys. Congressman Duncan stated that many of his constituents believe the surveys are invasive and ask too many personal questions. Current US law states if an individual fails to fill out these surveys, they can face fines up to $5,000.

Duncan's legislation would eliminate these surveys and encourage a less invasive method of information gathering. "These surveys amount to legalized government harassment," said Duncan. "Right now the Census Bureau can ask citizens very invasive questions, and if they don't respond, the government shows up at their door and threatens them with a fine. Americans are fed up with these mandatory census surveys and they're asking us to stop the harassment."

While the fines are certainly a source of concern, others are worried about protecting their privacy. "While the Census Bureau already has a legal obligation to keep people's information confidential, we all know that in an age of cyber attacks and computer hacking that ensuring people's privacy can be difficult," Duncan said. "It's perfectly reasonable for someone to be hesitant to share their personal information with the government. The Census Bureau shouldn't be forcing anyone to share the route they take their kids to school, or any information other than how many people live in their home."

Unfortunately, South Carolinians are keenly aware of what can happen when government records fall into the wrong hands after over four million social security numbers, tax records and 387,000 credit/debit card numbers were stolen from the SC Department of Revenue last year by hackers; it remains the nation's largest hacking of a state agency.

Those who oppose Duncan's legislation claim that our nation would miss out on vital economic data. Duncan objects to this contention, and believes there are other ways to gather information that does not involve harassing or threatening individuals to turn over personal data. "As a former small business owner, I recognize that some economic data gathering is beneficial. However, it should be voluntary, industry driven, and not mandated by the government under penalty of law. I'm confident in our ability to develop innovative ways to gather information without harassing people, invading their privacy, or threatening them with fines. Americans are tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives."

Duncan said the inspiration of this bill came from multiple complaints from constituents in South Carolina since he has taken office. "One of my most important responsibilities is to listen. This is a major concern that people are sharing with representatives across the country, and I want them to know that their concerns are valid and being addressed. At the end of the day, we need to look at ways of gathering economic data that protects taxpayer's wallets and their personal privacy."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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