Saturday, July 1, 2017
Is the census heading for a crisis?
The director resigns just as the $1.5 billion agency heads into its biggest test. Next in command may be a weather forecaster.
By DANNY VINIK
The FBI wasn’t the only agency that lost its boss on Tuesday: John Thompson, director of the Census Bureau, abruptly announced he was resigning at the end of June. His surprise exit leaves the bureau not only without a leader in the middle of the run-up to the 2020 census, but also without a permanent deputy director to step in for him—and no direct supervisor in place at the Department of Commerce, the agency that oversees the Bureau and its massive once-a-decade national survey.
The triple gap in leadership, along with a funding shortfall that has already forced the cancellation of multiple field tests, leaves observers worried about an impending crisis in the biggest civic project that Washington regularly undertakes—a population count that has profound effects on American business and politics.
Thompson’s departure comes after a rocky week in which he was grilled by legislators at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing and had to explain why a new electronic system was nearly 50 percent over budget. And it leaves the agency without a head at a crucial moment in its 10-year cycle, with 10,000 employees ramping up for a dry-run test of their capacity to run the 2020 census. Lawmakers had tried to ensure that the census wouldn’t face a leadership gap during this specific period—something all but certain to happen after Thompson steps down on June 30. The Trump Administration hasn't forwarded a nominee to replace him.
“This administration is at best guilty of neglect,” said a former congressional staffer who worked on census issues. “The Director’s term was up in January, and they have failed to recruit qualified scientists to lead the Bureau.”
The Commerce Department did not respond to questions on who would run the bureau, and said in a statement, “The Department of Commerce is reviewing the Census Bureau’s recent miscalculations and remains confident that the right team will be in place to conduct a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”
The census is enshrined in the Constitution, and unlike most government programs, has an inflexible and exacting schedule: The official count begins on April 1, 2020—not a day later. Its results direct the destination of hundreds of billions of federal dollars each year and determine which states gain and lose House seats during reapportionment.
The results of the Census, and the picture it draws of America’s population, can be highly dependent on what questions it asks and how hard it tries to find everyone—an issue even more fraught in 2020, given the profound debates the Trump campaign raised about American identity. Many census-watchers have also been airing fears that the administration could install a partisan at the agency to influence the count for political purposes. “At worst,” said the former staffer, “this is a deliberate act to sabotage the constitutionally mandated 2020 count and the fair distribution of political power for the next decade.”
Experts are hopeful that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will quickly nominate a replacement for Thompson. During his confirmation hearing, Ross—who actually worked as a census enumerator when he was younger—spoke of the importance of government data in general, and called the census and other government data-collection projects “essential functions” of the agency.
It’s unclear why, exactly, Thompson, a trained statistician who has been at the agency for almost 30 years and led it since 2013, submitted his resignation without a replacement in the wings. Ken Prewitt, a former director of the Census Bureau who has known him for decades, said that if Thompson lost the confidence of Ross, he would step aside so that the secretary could install his own director as the agency enters such a critical period. “From a distance, I just know the man very, very well,” Prewitt said. “He would think the census is likely to be in better hands if the director has the confidence of the secretary.”
The Census Bureau has already had a difficult year. First, the 2017 spending bill funded the agency 10 percent below its budget request, which some census observers say will prevent the agency from fully preparing for the 2020 count. The Bureau canceled multiple field tests and delayed opening three field offices as a result of multiple continuing resolutions since October that funded the agency at 2016 levels. (Traditionally, Congress ramps up census funding during the last few years of the decade.)
Then came Thompson’s difficult appearance before the House Appropriations subcommittee. The cost overrun was particularly frustrating for lawmakers who have pressured the Bureau to keep costs down after a costly tech snafu in the 2010 census led to $3 billion in additional costs. “We want to hear from you today what happened and why, and what is being done about it to hold people accountable in order to ensure that this doesn't happen again,” said Rep. John Culberson, the subcommittee chair. This cycle, lawmakers have told the agency not to exceed the total cost for the 2010 cycle, $12 billion, which Thompson said the agency was still on track to meet.
Thompson’s term had actually expired at the end of 2016, but under a 2011 law, he is allowed to stay on for an additional year. Census watchers had hoped that President Donald Trump would nominate a replacement in time for the Senate to vet and confirm that person before Thompson’s departure, avoiding a leadership gap. That will not happen. The Trump administration has announced nominations for only 96 of 557 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, and with gaps still in top-level jobs such as the director of the Office of Personnel Management and a top position at the White House budget office, it’s not clear whether replacing the Census director will be a priority. Experts hope that Ross’s commitment to the census will drive Trump to name a replacement soon. But even if he does that, the Senate Homeland Security Committee still needs to hold a hearing before the full Senate takes up the nomination.
If the Bureau had an experienced deputy—a civil service position, not a political appointee—the consequences of Thompson’s departure would likely be mitigated, said census-watchers. But in January, the agency’s deputy director, Nancy Potok, left to become the government’s chief statistician and has yet to be replaced. Asked who was temporarily filling the role, the Census Bureau declined to provide a name, instead saying, “The deputy director and director positions at the U.S. Census Bureau will be filled in due course and an acting director position will be filled shortly.” Two sources who track the agency closely told POLITICO that the acting deputy director is Laura Furgione, who joined the bureau only in December. Prior to that, she had been at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for more than a decade, rising up to become the acting director of the National Weather Service—also known as the nation’s top weather forecaster.
The agency has been mum about her role as acting deputy director, not listing it on its website and not responding to follow-up questions from POLITICO. It’s possible that Ross will choose someone else at the agency to become the acting director, leaving Furgione in her current position, or that the agency will hire a permanent deputy director in the next seven weeks. But the prospect of Furgione temporarily leading the agency has worried some census-watchers, who are uncertain about whether her skills as a meteorologist would translate into overseeing the Census Bureau, especially the decennial census.
“Having observed these things for decades, it just says to me that she is a placeholder,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, the former co-director of the Census Project, an organization that tracks the census. “She is certainly a qualified individual in her previous capacity but whether she has the experience and skills necessary to be in that position, especially at this point in the decade, are probably open to question.”
Howard Fienberg, a lobbyist at the Insights Association, a trade group that represents the research industry, said that he wanted a director with experience and skills in managing a large bureaucracy and dealing with logistical nightmares. “My fantasy would be you bring in someone like the person who runs Fed-Ex,” he said, although he admitted that was unlikely to happen.
Furgione, as head of the NWS, which has 5,000 employees and a budget over $1 billion, has experience in managing a bureaucracy. The Census Bureau is larger—the 2017 budget is around $1.5 billion and it has around 10,000 employees—but not that much larger. Still, the decennial itself is a massive mobilization, involving the short-term hiring of hundreds of thousands of enumerators, and billions of dollars in additional spending as Census Day approaches. It’s a role that even experienced bureaucrats have struggled with.
“You need to be able to run a bureaucracy and make it work at top speed and peak performance at a very tight schedule and be able to liaise with the rest of the government and especially Congress,” said Fienberg. “Not an easy position to be in.”
An additional complication is the relationship of the census to the Commerce Department, its parent agency. Former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker elevated the Census Bureau so that its director reports to the deputy director of commerce, bypassing the under secretary of economic affairs who used to oversee the census. It’s unclear if Ross has retained that organizational structure. But if so, the Census is missing that figure too: the deputy secretary of commerce role also remains unfilled after Trump’s initial selection, Chicago Cubs owner Todd Ricketts, withdrew in April. Trump has not nominated anyone for the under secretary of economic affairs role either and the Commerce website lists Brad Burke, a civil servant who formerly worked in the finance industry, as temporarily filling the job.
Because census management is so time-sensitive, lawmakers passed a law in 2011 to prevent situations like the one in which the Bureau now finds itself, standardizing a renewable five-year term of the director so it would start on the second and seventh year of each decade. “In large part, [the law was] designed to avoid the situation we now face,” said Lowenthal. “Congress wanted to promote continuity of leadership throughout the 10 year cycle. And instead less than three years before the 2020 census starts, and less than a year before the critical dry-run of the full process, there will be a leadership vacuum that will be hard to fill quickly. I’m quite worried.”