Senate panel shows little resistance to Census Bureau nominee

President Obama’s pick to fill a nearly yearlong void at the head of the Census Bureau testified before a relatively friendly Senate panel on Tuesday, with Republicans and Democrats alike indicating they support his nomination.

(Courtesy National Opinion Research Center) - Census Bureau director nominee John H. Thompson.
(Courtesy National Opinion Research Center) – Census Bureau director nominee John H. Thompson.

John H. Thompson fielded a limited number of tough questions as the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee pressed for his thoughts on cost-effectiveness, fines for non-responders and whether the nation’s decennial survey contains overly intrusive questions.

Republicans have shown strong resistance to some of Obama’s second-term political appointments, but the panel’s GOP members gave a warm reception to Thompson, a 27-year Census Bureau veteran and current head of the National Opinion Research Center, a leading social-research group with ties to the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught law.

“Your qualifications are impeccable, and we’re very pleased that you’re willing to take on this position,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) asked Thompson to comment on the government’s authority to levy a $5,000 fine against residents who do not fill out the decennial survey. The nominee said he was not prepared to talk in detail about the issue but added that he would be happy to discuss the matter with lawmakers if confirmed.

Ayotte raised concerns about the appropriateness of certain Census questions, such as those that ask whether respondents have learning disabilities or difficulty dressing and bathing. “These are intrusive questions to ask people about,” she said.

“Our responsibility is to be as least intrusive as possible in terms of respecting the privacy of the American people,” Thompson responded.

If confirmed, Thompson would replace former Census chief Robert Groves, who left the bureau in August 2012 to become provost at Georgetown University.

Thompson, a long-time colleague of the previous director, indicated he would continue Groves’ efforts to improve Census Bureau survey methods through technology.  He said the agency should move toward using the Internet as a primary response option and make better use of existing federal records to reduce the manpower needed to collect data.

“If I am confirmed, my goal will be to leave a legacy of innovation at all levels,” Thompson said.

Committee chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Thompson’s nomination comes at an important time in the decade-long Census cycle. “It is these interim years in the middle of the decade when the critical research, testing and planning phases are completed, and the groundwork is laid for the actual count,” he said.

The Census Bureau experienced numerous setbacks with its 2010 survey, most notably with an expensive effort to use handheld computers for data collection. The agency partially abandoned that initiative in April 2008, after it had already spent nearly $600 million on half a million of the devices.

Costs for the Census have escalated dramatically in recent decades, with the government practically doubling its spending on the 2010 survey compared to the previous cycle. Carper said the price tag for the 2020 Census would exceed $25 billion if the recent trend continues.

“At a time when agencies across the federal government have been asked to do more with less, a $25 billion decennial Census is unacceptable,” Carper said. “If you are confirmed, Mr. Thompson, this committee will look to you to develop and implement initiatives to control costs while maintaining the quality and accuracy of the decennial count.”

The Senate panel has not yet scheduled a vote on whether to approve Thompson’s nomination and continue the confirmation proceedings with the full Senate, according to committee staff.

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks · July 9, 2013