Congress

Census effort gets $7.6 billion funding, ‘friended’ by Facebook

Spending bill passed on same day Facebook pledges to remove false census posts, ads

Facebook announced it would remove misleading 2020 census information from its platform. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Census Bureau got a slew of new tools Thursday in preparation for next year’s census count, making congressional allies and advocates cautiously optimistic about the effort. 

The same day Congress sent the White House a sweeping spending package that includes $7.6 billion for the Census Bureau, Facebook announced it would remove incorrect or misleading census information from its platform next year. The social media giant’s announcement follows steps by Google and the Census Bureau itself to keep online outreach efforts on track for the 2020 count.

[Researchers warn census privacy efforts may muddy federal data]

Those results will influence the distribution of political power throughout the country for a decade, as well as $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually. Members of Congress pushing for more active involvement from social media companies, including Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, took a “trust but verify” approach to Facebook’s move Thursday.

“I have been a real critic of these internet platforms, and let me take this opportunity to say that in this instance they appear to be doing the right thing,” Schatz said.

Facebook joined several other internet companies by announcing  it would remove information from its platform that misrepresents the census or the census process, even if posted by a politician. The company also said it would work with the Census Bureau and local officials to help track any distortion about the census online.

Next month, the agency will start its count, beginning with residents of rural Alaska. It also will kick off a $500 million advertising campaign before efforts to count more than 300 million American residents start in the spring. The agency has invested more than $5 billion in information technology and computer upgrades for a series of innovations, including the nation’s first primarily online census count.

Part of those funds will go toward online efforts to promote the census process. The agency announced on Tuesday that its “Trust & Safety” team also will act as a clearinghouse for efforts to stop the online spread of misinformation.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who heads the House Oversight and Reform Committee panel that oversees the census, praised the Facebook announcement and commended the Census Bureau’s efforts.

“The government has a responsibility to defend our elections and defend a civic process like the census, so that’s good news,” Raskin said.

Census funding

On Thursday, the Senate voted 81-11 to send President Donald Trump a sweeping appropriations bill that includes $7.6 billion in funding that advocates say is needed to finance next year’s count. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, touted the census funding as a victory.

“There are things that did not get included that I would like to have had, but I think there are a number of areas where it’s important progress for the American people. I will put the census at the top of that list,” Shaheen said.

Commerce Department officials initially requested about $5.3 billion in new Census Bureau appropriations for the 2020 count, relying on $1 billion in carryover funds as part of a $6.2 billion funding request for the entire agency.

The House passed a spending bill earlier this year to fund the census with $7.5 billion. The final package ended up closer to a bill contemplated by the Senate, which has about $6.7 billion for the census within the broader $7.6 billion for the entire agency.

Census officials have had to make tradeoffs in the lead-up to next year’s count, citing budget shortfalls. Last year the agency cut back on a series of planned field tests of new procedures, launching just one in Rhode Island instead of three.

Census Bureau officials have said that additional resources would allow them to launch initiatives like “mobile questionnaire assistance centers” with staff traveling to community events to help residents fill out forms and answer questions about the process.

Members of the Census Project, a coalition of business and nonprofit groups advocating for a complete count, praised the package before the final Senate votes. The group’s co-director, Howard Fienberg, said the funding may help prevent undercounts that could skew political power, market research and more.

“Now we must shift to the bigger lift: completing an inclusive and accurate 2020 Census count,” he said in a statement. “Anything less could have a trickle-down impact restraining or harming American business investment and decision-making for the next decade.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.