Editorials

This federal agency is a ticking time bomb for California

Voters cast their ballots in this 2014 file photo. The results of the 2020 Census determine how many members voters in each state get to represent them in the House of Representatives.
Voters cast their ballots in this 2014 file photo. The results of the 2020 Census determine how many members voters in each state get to represent them in the House of Representatives. AP

It’s tough to keep track of every new drama in the soap opera that is the Trump administration. But still, it’s troubling how little attention has been paid to the pending resignation of U.S. Census Bureau Director John Thompson.

On the same day President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Thompson announced that he, too, was leaving, at the end of June. Thompson had been expected to stay on the job through the end of the year.

The vacancy couldn’t come at a more inopportune time.

A botched population count would be disastrous for the nation, but, in particular, for California. The results of the decennial count determine everything from how state and federal political districts are drawn to how federal dollars for housing, education and transportation infrastructure are spent. Not to mention how the nation’s unemployment rate is calculated.

The census goes to the very core of how our democratic republic operates, down to which Americans are counted for representation by determining how many members each state has in the House.

This is one appointment Trump can’t afford to put on the back burner, the way he has so many others. But that’s exactly what seems to be happening.

A spokesperson from U.S. Department of Commerce told The Washington Post that an acting director would be named “in the coming days” and a permanent person would be appointed “in due course.” That was more than a week ago and nothing has happened since.

Without more strident voices in Congress, this appointment, so vital to our nation, could be ignored, particularly with the mushrooming investigation into Russia and the president’s associates.

Thompson said in a statement that resigning now will allow “the current administration sufficient time to put the proper leadership in place to guide the Census Bureau through the 2020 Census.” The truth is, there’s not much time.

When he leaves on June 30, reportedly to pursue “opportunities in the private sector,” there will be a leadership vacuum at the Census Bureau. There’s no permanent deputy director and no one at the Department of Commerce, which oversees the agency, who has been assigned to pick up the slack.

For that, we can blame a Trump administration that has been excruciatingly slow to fill federal appointments.

Meanwhile, preparations for the decennial count are just starting – a process that has been hampered by Congress. In April, legislators approved a 2017 fiscal year budget of only $1.47 billion for the agency, about 10 percent less than requested.

It was an odd and reckless decision, especially since Congress usually increases the Census Bureau’s budget in the years leading up to a count to ensure there’s enough money for publicity and testing.

What’s more, the Trump administration’s proposed Census Bureau budget for 2018 is $1.5 billion. That’s widely considered to be far short of what’s needed to pull off a successful population count at a time when Americans are mobile, ditching landlines for smartphones, and in California, where hundreds of thousands live on the streets and so don’t have homes at all.

The census is nothing to skimp on. Nor is it something to ignore. Washington does so at its peril.

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