Correction to This Article
A March 25 Fed Page article about a package of proposed census reforms incorrectly said that the bill was being introduced in Congress on Wednesday of that week. The bill was introduced that Thursday.

Improving census process for 2020 is already prompting action by lawmakers

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

About 20 percent of American households have completed and sent back their 2010 Census forms, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Wednesday, a figure that suggests this year's head count is on track to at least match participation rates from 2000.

The agency also told of plans to report the participation rates at the Zip code, city, county and state levels daily through late April, using Google Maps and Google Earth technology. The daily tracking numbers are designed to inspire local competitions and to remind Americans to return their forms by April 1.

As the Census Bureau prepares to tabulate this year's figures, Democratic and Republican lawmakers will introduce Wednesday a package of reforms designed to give the agency more political and budgetary independence ahead of the 2020 count.

The Census Bureau is the nation's largest statistical agency and one of a dozen bureaus within the Commerce Department. But career staffers and former agency bosses have long argued that the agency suffers from inconsistent attention in the years between head counts.

That's partly because of the constitutionally mandated 10-year census cycle, which often conflicts with four- or eight-year terms for presidential administrations and leads to delays in the appointment process, according to former census directors.

Starting in 2012, lawmakers want future census directors to serve five-year terms that overlap presidential and congressional election years. The legislation would also have the director report only to the commerce secretary, instead of to deputies. And future agency bosses would be able to submit congressional testimony independent of department or administration review.

"Some would say that having press conferences about the 2020 Census before the 2010 Census is done is jumping the gun," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the bill's main House sponsor. "We need to act now that they can do what needs to be done to get ready for 2020, so we can save money and maintain accuracy."

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) is pushing the bill through the Senate with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Every living former census director also backs the measure.

Martha Farnsworth Riche, who led the agency during the Clinton administration, said preparations must begin years in advance to control costs and ensure smooth operations.

"All of us who have been census directors -- regardless whether Democratic or Republican -- have experienced the Commerce Department delaying budget requests too long to enact even money-saving improvements, because the department had higher priorities for their budget than a census several years down the road," she said.

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