Someday historians will look back at the 112th and call it the Crackpot Congress.

But why wait?

It is paralyzed by bickering, short on accomplishments and completely unable to solve or even talk reasonably about the most pressing problems facing our nation. It has been an embarrassing spectacle of how Democracy isn’t supposed to work.

Now we have descended into calamitous incoherency: The U.S. House voted 232 to 190 May 9 to eliminate the American Community Survey portion of the U.S. Census.

This is what we used to call the “long form” of the Census that was sent once every 10 years to a small but representative portion of the U.S. population.

In 1995, the Census Bureau began switching to shorter forms that are sent more regularly. Taken together, the surveys provide the most concise statistical picture we have of American society.

It is relied upon not only by nearly every government agency, but by businesses, historians, economists, sociologists, think tanks, authors and newspaper reporters.

In short, it is indispensable. Eliminating it would be like entering the information age with less information than we had in the horse-and-buggy era.

The bill originated with U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) who argued that the extended census is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

His reasoning: The households chosen randomly for the survey are legally obligated to complete and return the forms. 

It is a legal obligation, but in name only. The Census Bureau has never fined or prosecuted anyone for not providing the information.

Congress could eliminate the legal obligation to fill out the forms. But the Census Bureau would then have to increase the sample size which would increase the cost.

By the way, the Census Bureau has an impeccable record for preserving individual privacy, which it maintains by quickly disconnecting individual people from their answers.

The Census Bureau’s efforts have always enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress, and Webster’s bill has been opposed by both liberal and conservative academics and think tanks.

Businessweek magazine recently pointed out that businesses strongly support continuing the survey.

“The Chamber of Commerce, for example, strongly advocates funding them, since its members rely so much on the information they provide on basic things such as household spending, per capita income and population estimates.”

In other words, the information helps companies decide everything from the placement of new stores to the feasibility of introducing a new product.

An economist with the conservative American Enterprise Institute told Businessweek the surveys are “essential.

“The data they provide really tell us what’s going on in the economy,” said AEI nonresident scholar Phillip Swagel. “This shouldn’t be a political issue.”

But, of course, everything is a political issue today, particularly in the paralyzing, do-nothing run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

In that furor we seem to have lost not only the ability to separate good government programs from bad ones, but the confidence that government can do much of anything for the collective good.

Many of us will recall the days when filling out the forms was regarded as an important civic duty, but that impulse is in short supply in an angry nation.

The kill-the-census measure now moves to the U.S. Senate. Let’s hope the crackpots don’t carry the day.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.


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