A revealing survey

Earlier this month, 228 Republicans and four Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives voted to lower the quality of service they provide to the people who elected them. That’s not the way they’d spin it, but that would be one of the many bad things that would happen if the measure they approved becomes law.

The vote came on an amendment eliminating funding for the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a statistically sound research project that collects data from a scientific sample of about 3 million households each year on many aspects of American society.

The information then is stripped of all identifying names, numbers and locations and assembled into text, tables, charts, graphs and spreadsheets. It is made available to all at no charge. The information is essential to the work of responsible elected officials and their staffs, career public servants, special interest groups, major corporations, teachers, researchers and small businesses.

The House vote may reflect genuine, but irrational, fears of government. It may be mere pandering to extreme anti-government factions. Either way, the inmates appear to be running the asylum. Hopefully, the Senate will be different.

Without it, Americans will be left with unreliable data about their own communities. Companies will lose information crucial for decisions on locating new businesses and creating jobs. Farmers and other rural residents will be left without dependable data on water and sanitation infrastructure. And public officials will be even more dependent on what Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute testifying before a House committee in March, derisively called "policymaking by anecdote," rather than policymaking based on facts.

Innumerable screeds on the Internet claim the American Community Survey is unconstitutional because the U.S. Constitution specifies only a simple head count every 10 years. This is wrong, of course.

Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution says that censuses shall be conducted "in such Manner as [Congress] shall by Law direct." Congress passed laws establishing the American Community Survey. The federal courts have heard challenges to various census forms and surveys and have affirmed their constitutionality, most recently in a Texas case, Morales v. Evans, in 2000.

That decision was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals; the U.S. Supreme Court declined to accept an appeal. The decision notes, among many things, that even the nation’s first census, conducted in 1790, was more than a simple head count.

Local and state governments, law enforcement at all levels, government and private service agencies, non-profit groups, think tanks of all but the wackiest political stripes, industry trade associations, corporate America, struggling small business owners and citizen activists want, need and use the reliable data of the American Community Survey every year.

The law allows modest civil penalties against people who fail to respond honestly to Census Bureau questions. But serious criminal penalties can be levied against government workers who violate the privacy of people who answer.

The House Republican majority and the party in general seem content to look foolish catering to the paranoid anti-government fantasies of the increasingly assertive extremists in their base.

It’s up to the members of the Senate to draw a line at the American Community Survey and say, "The craziness stops here."