The director of the U.S. Census Bureau is resigning, leaving the agency leaderless at a time when it faces a crisis over funding for the 2020 decennial count of the U.S. population and beyond.
John Thompson, who has served as director since 2013 and worked for the bureau for 27 years prior to that, will leave on June 30, the Commerce Department announced Tuesday.
The news, which surprised census experts, follows an April Congressional budget allocation for the census that critics say is woefully inadequate, and comes less than a week after a prickly hearing at which Thompson told lawmakers that cost estimates for a new electronic data collection system had ballooned by nearly 50 percent.
“It’s like two trains going down the track toward each other, with Republicans decrying the budget overrun and Democrats saying the census has been underfunded,” Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, a watchdog organization, said of the May 3 hearing of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. “This puts the Census in the crosshairs both ways.”
No successor for Thompson was announced; a Commerce Department spokesperson said an acting director would be designated “in the coming days” and the position would be filled permanently “in due course.”
The decennial count typically requires a massive ramp-up in spending in the years immediately preceding it, involving extensive testing, hiring, and publicity. However, in late April Congress approved only $1.47 billion for the Census bureau in the 2017 fiscal year, around 10 percent below what the Obama administration had requested. And experts say the White House’s proposed budget for 2018, $1.5 billion, falls far below what is needed.
Compounding the problem, the bureau had hoped to implement a new system that relies more heavily on electronic data collection than in the past. That plan was announced after Congress told the bureau that the cost of the 2020 count could not exceed the cost of the 2010 count; the new system was promoted as a cost-saving measure.
But at the May 3 hearing, Thompson said that a $656 million cost estimate from 2013 for the new system had been off and the current projected cost was $965 million. Despite this, he told the committee that the bureau was “progressing well” toward being ready for 2020.
Congressman John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the committee, said the projected increase was “a real source of concern” and demanded to know how the bureau planned to cut costs.
Neither Census nor Commerce Department officials responded to questions about why Thompson is leaving now and whether his departure was unexpected. His five-year term expired in December, but he had been widely expected to stay on through at least the end of this year.
“I saw him as recently as two weeks ago, he was feeling very good about where things were, so I must say that this comes as a surprise, and a sad surprise, that he would feel he needed to do this,” said Kenneth Prewitt, who was director during the leadup to the 2000 Census, when Thompson was associate director. “He’s a very , very competent man.”
In announcing Thompson’s retirement, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross thanked him for “your three decades of public service,” adding, “your experience will be greatly missed.”
In an internal bureau email obtained by The Washington Post, Thompson said resigning now “will allow Secretary Ross and the current administration sufficient time to put in the proper leadership to guide the Census Bureau through the 2017 Economic Census, the 2020 Census and beyond.”
Thompson met with Ross on Monday, sources said.
The 2010 count was most expensive Census ever, costing $13 billion over 10 years and sending hundreds of thousands of workers to walk down every block in the country. To carry out a similar operation now would cost $17.8 billion.
New methods to automate the process must be tested well before 2020, but the bureau is so short on funds that it has cancelled tests planned for this year and suspended development of a communications campaign.
A former Hill staffer who is knowledgeable about the Census said Congress’s mandate for the 2020 Census to cost no more than the 2010 one was unrealistic.
“They’re not accounting for inflation, they’re not accounting for the 30 million more Americans, for the fact that people don’t have hard (telephone) lines anymore, and you’re going to do the census for the same amount of money? That’s not possible.”
He said he didn’t believe Thompson had been pushed out, given that there is no clear successor to step in. “His resigning was surprising,” he said.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-NY, ranking member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, called Thompson’s departure “a loss” and added that the bureau needs “robust funding . . . in order to have to a successful and accurate operation in 2020. Without strong leadership at the Bureau, this vital mission will be imperiled.”
Serrano said he had “no information one way or the other” about whether Thompson was pushed out, but that he “will be exploring this issue further when the Secretary comes to testify before the committee.”
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, said she was skeptical that the president would act quickly to nominate a new director. “Considering how many senior Administration political appointments remain vacant, I am worried that the nomination could take a while.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Tara Bahrampour