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A new bill could help protect the census after Trump-era interference

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the current chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, who's shown here in 2018, has introduced a bill to try to protect the 2030 census and other future head counts from political interference.
Andrew Harnik
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the current chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, who's shown here in 2018, has introduced a bill to try to protect the 2030 census and other future head counts from political interference.

Updated July 12, 2022 at 9:51 AM ET

A bill introduced Monday in the U.S. House of Representatives could help the 2030 census and other upcoming national head counts avoid the years of meddling by former President Donald Trump's administration that dogged the country's most recent tally.

If it becomes law, the bill would put up additional roadblocks against any attempt by an administration to interfere with the next once-a-decade census, which is used to divvy up political representation and federal funding to communities across the U.S.

The proposal led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney — a Democrat from New York who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee that helps oversee the Census Bureau — comes after the Trump administration raised the risks of an incomplete and inaccurate count of the country's population in 2020 with its failed push for a previously untested census question about U.S. citizenship status and installation of political appointees with no obvious qualifications at the bureau, among other extraordinary moves.

"It basically moves to make sure that the census is fair and accurate, that it is removed from political influence and that the decisions made are made on science and not politics," Maloney told NPR.

Under the Ensuring a Fair and Accurate Census Act, the number of political appointees allowed at the bureau, the federal government's largest statistical agency with about 4,285 staffers, would be limited to three, including the agency's director.

The president would be allowed to remove the director — who currently can serve no more than two five-year terms — "only for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office," according to the legislative text. And if there is no director in place, there would be a succession plan involving only the top career civil servants.

The bill also specifies that only the bureau's director could make operational, statistical or technical decisions for the once-a-decade national count and that the agency could only have a "single" deputy director, who would be a career civil servant appointed by the director.

To try to prevent another citizenship-question debacle, the head of the Government Accountability Office would have to review whether all questions for the upcoming census have been "researched, studied and tested according to established statistical policies and procedures."

The bill would also require the bureau to report to Congress five-year cost estimates for its work, as well as provide a report every two years on the status of its plans for the upcoming census.

Two additional committees of outside advisers — one for reviewing statistical quality standards and another specifically focused on the 2030 census and the bureau's American Community Survey, the country's largest survey — would be created.

During the Trump administration, plans for a 2020 census advisory committee were stopped despite the concerns of many census stakeholders.

With November's midterm elections on the horizon and no introduction yet of a Senate version of this bill, it's not clear if the Democratic-controlled Congress will be able to pass the legislation during this session.

Maloney noted that other priorities, including gun control and prescription drug prices, forced this bill to stay on the backburner.

"You can't do everything at once, so we finally got to it," Maloney said.

The House oversight committee is scheduled to discuss the bill Thursday during a business meeting.

Asked if she's feeling pressure to get the bill passed by the end of the year, Maloney replied: "Yes. I certainly hope that we have a Democratic House and Senate, but you never know in an election. And I do not think the Republicans would support this bill, but I can't speak for them. They haven't supported them in the past."

In past years, Maloney has introduced bills that would make the bureau, which is currently under the Commerce Department, an independent agency — a strategy that her latest census bill avoids.

"I know both Republican and Democratic administrations did not support it being totally independent, so we have it in the Commerce Department but with strict guidelines, rules, regulations," Maloney said, adding that she's "pleased" that this new bill would make the bureau "more independent than it has been before."

The bill has the support of four former bureau directors, who released a joint statement after its introduction saying the legislation "would help build greater trust and confidence in the essential data the Census Bureau supplies to the nation."

"Trust in the nation's official data is essential to the democracy and the economy, and this legislation will undergird that trust," added Vincent Barabba, Robert Groves, Kenneth Prewitt and John Thompson.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.