WASHINGTON -- The Senate could follow the House of Representatives' lead and gut a key survey of the Census Bureau used by businesses, researchers and governments, advocates fear.
The House voted last month to end the American Community Survey, which samples millions of Americans every year to obtain detailed information that is used for everything from market research to deciding where to build roads, hospitals and businesses.
The study used to be known as the "long form" of the census and was done every 10 years along with the decennial count. It was overhauled during the Clinton and Bush administrations to keep costs down and became an annual, rolling survey that provided more timely data. Its origins date to 1790, when Thomas Jefferson oversaw the census that first asked questions beyond simply counting people.
But Republicans have recently decided that such activities are unconstitutional and overly intrusive. After succeeding in getting the House to vote to end the community survey, they are taking a less extreme tack in the Senate. A bill proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would merely make it voluntary, instead of mandatory.
Paul's office did not respond to requests to explain his amendment.
Advocates for the census think that ending the mandatory requirement all but kills the ACS. "Making the survey voluntary will substantially decrease participation rates," said Phil Sparks, a former associate director of the census who now works for The Census Project. "Canada just went through this same torturous process, and response rates dropped 50 percent."
A similar result in the United States, where the response rate is 98 percent, would destroy the data, he said. "The ability to understand data at the city, county and even block level would be virtually impossible," Sparks said.
Such data is essential, he said, because it is the basis for distributing some $450 billion a year in federal funding.
"That's how the money for major programs back to the States and localities is determined," Starks said. "The alternative would be endless earmarking because there is no replicable survey that could provide this kind of data either in the public or private sector."
He and others have made that argument to senators, who could consider the census budget later this month, but he said he has found few willing to listen, particularly among the GOP.
"When we have gone into Senate offices where they will vote for the Rand Paul amendment and we talk about facts, their reply is, 'But it's a matter of principle,'" Starks said. "It is very difficult to have an information-based argument when the person sitting across from you is going to vote on the basis of a value."
His fear is that while most Democrats are likely to back continuing the American Community Survey, enough could go the other way, leaving America with an eviscerated data set upon which to make decisions. "If the Republicans are solid on this, all it would take would be a few defections, and it could happen," Sparks said.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who sits on the Financial Services Committee and fears the impact of losing census data on businesses, called on her colleagues and Republicans in the upper chamber to support the survey.
“There is an opportunity here for the Senate to save the country from an economic calamity, but I am under no illusions that we are there yet," Maloney said in a statement. "The idea that House Republicans voted to gut our economic statistics and the information that makes our nation’s public and private sectors more efficient makes no sense when we are competing with China and other countries in the global economy.”
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.