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A bill to block census interference passed the House. Its Senate path is unclear

Balloons decorate a 2019 event leading up to the 2020 census in Boston. The U.S. House has passed a bill that could help protect the 2030 census and other future counts from political interference.
Brian Snyder
Balloons decorate a 2019 event leading up to the 2020 census in Boston. The U.S. House has passed a bill that could help protect the 2030 census and other future counts from political interference.

After years of census meddling by former President Donald Trump's administration, the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that could help protect the 2030 census and other future national head counts from any additional political interference.

The legislation includes multiple safeguards for the once-a-decade tally that's used to redistribute political representation and federal funding to communities across the country.

Under the Ensuring a Fair and Accurate Census Act, the president would be allowed to remove the Census Bureau director only for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office" and the Government Accountability Office would have to check that all questions on census forms have been studied and tested.

The bill would also create two additional committees of outside advisers to the bureau — one focused on statistical quality standards and another on the 2030 count and the bureau's American Community Survey.

But in these final months of this session of Congress, whether lawmakers can carry this legislation to the finish line is an open question.

While the White House has signaled President Biden supports the bill, no lawmaker has stepped up to help champion the legislation with a companion bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the just-passed House bill is headed for consideration in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Still, in a 220-208 vote along party lines, the House's Democratic majority passed an amended version of a bill that was introduced by Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the outgoing chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee who has long focused on census reforms.

Maloney, who lost a primary election last month for a redrawn district in New York City, also helped lead a years-long congressional investigation into the Trump officials' failed push for a citizenship question, which the Supreme Court blocked after finding the administration's use of the Voting Rights Act to justify the question "seems to have been contrived."

The bill would limit the number of political appointees at the Census Bureau

Four former bureau directors have offered their stamp of approval for the bill, which, they said in a joint statement in July, "will help preserve and protect the independence and integrity of the scientific mission" at the bureau.

During the Trump administration, many census advocates raised alarms about the extraordinary moves of the former president's political appointees at the agency.

In the final months of counting for the 2020 census, the number of Trump appointees at the bureau ballooned, as four additional officials joined the agency's highest ranks with no obvious qualifications.

The Ensuring a Fair and Accurate Census Act would restrict the number of political appointees at the bureau, including its director, to four and only allow for one deputy director, who would have to be a career civil servant chosen by the director. Another part of the bill specifies that operational, statistical and technical decisions for the count could only be made by the bureau's director.

During the House floor debate over the bill on Wednesday, some Republican lawmakers tried to push back against many of the bill's provisions.

Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, a Republican on the House oversight committee, unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would have removed the requirements for the firing of the bureau's director and for the deputy director to be a career civil servant with a background in the agency's work as well as demography, economics, survey methodology, statistics or data science.

The bill would require a Census Bureau employee to be responsible for "optimizing racial and ethnic equity"

A late amendment to the bill that did pass, proposed by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, would direct an employee at the bureau to be "responsible for optimizing racial and ethnic equity" in the census, which for decades has undercounted people of color while overcounting people who identify as white and not Hispanic or Latino.

The bill would also bring new reporting requirements to the bureau.

The agency would have to report to Congress its plans for improving how it works with local communities to conduct the census, in addition to sharing five-year cost estimates for all of the agency's work and a report every two years on its census plans.

The bill would not turn the Census Bureau into an independent federal agency

The bill's passage in the House comes days after the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice issued a comprehensive report of policies for improving the census.

That report, which cites NPR's reporting, recommends making the bureau, currently overseen by the Commerce Department, an independent federal agency.

While Maloney, the bill's lead sponsor, has introduced past bills with a similar proposal, she told NPR in July that she took a different approach in her current legislation for the bureau.

"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.

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