WHEN THE PARTIES were arguing in the last Congress and earlier this year about the use of sampling in the 2000 census, one of the issues was cost. Democrats said sampling was the only affordable way to correct the undercount of minority groups and poor people that increasingly has affected the census in recent decades; after taking the normal head count, the bureau would make adjustments to reflect the results of elaborate recounts in sample census districts.

Republicans, who oppose the use of sampling, which they fear could cost them seats in the next redistricting, said not to worry: They would cheerfully provide the necessary funds for the exhaustive "actual enumeration" they contend the Constitution requires. But now the appropriations process has begun, and under the budget rules, it turns out that the only way to fund the census is at the expense of something else. What will it be?

The Republicans partly prevailed in a lawsuit they filed to require an actual count as opposed to the publication of adjusted figures. The Supreme Court ruled that unadjusted figures had to be used in the basic apportionment of House seats among the states, but suggested that adjusted figures could be used thereafter, in redistricting within the states and in the allocation of federal funds.

To cover the estimated cost of the more elaborate head count that this split decision would require, the administration has requested $1.7 billion for the census next fiscal year, atop its earlier request for $2.8 billion. But the relevant bill for the departments of State, Justice and Commerce reported out by the Senate Appropriations Committee contains none of the extra money; the House Appropriations Committee has not produced a bill.

Sooner or later, the money will be found; that seems a pretty safe bet. The problem lies with the unrealistically low appropriations caps the president and Congress have pretended to impose on themselves in order to make it look as if they are spending less than in the end they know they will spend. The caps were set for show, without regard to the actual needs of the agencies whose funding they purport to cover. They tighten over time, but even this year they provide less than some agencies need. The census money is an example.

Someone has to admit that the caps are artificially low and move to raise them. Which party will that be? That's what they're fighting about. What's an accurate census compared with bragging rights about which party is the strongest champion of false economy?