In a week dominated by President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, you could be forgiven for missing the imminent departure of another, less prominent federal official.
Yet the news this week that John H. Thompson, the director of the Census Bureau, has abruptly resigned is arguably as consequential to the future of our democracy. That’s because the Census Bureau, while less flashy than the FBI, plays a staggeringly important role in both U.S. elections and an array of state and federal government functions.
“At the very heart of the Census is nothing less than political power and money,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, who served as the staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee before becoming a consultant on census policy and operational issues. “It is the basis, the very foundation, of our democracy and the Constitution’s promise of equal representation.”
The results of the decennial Census—the next will be in 2020—will determine how state and federal political districts are drawn; which Americans are “counted” for representation; and how federal dollars, many of which are allocated on a per capita basis, are spent.
The Founding Fathers believed so deeply in the importance of a comprehensive census that they included a legal requirement for it in the Constitution, a clause later underscored by the Fourteenth Amendment. We have carried out a national Census every ten years since 1790.
Thompson’s early departure has the potential to undermine that tradition. The director’s fixed, five-year term had been extended through 2017 and his exit was a surprise. Some advocates speculate he was pushed out for political reasons, although there is no evidence to support that claim.
What’s clear is Thompson’s resignation leaves the agency in a tough position. During the critical ramp up period before the 2020 Census, the bureau now faces a leadership vacuum, a dearth of funding, and a potentially contentious political fight over the nomination of the next director.
“The timing of Thompson’s departure could not be worse,” said Phil Sparks, co-director of the Census Project, a non-profit coalition that advocates for a fair Census. “If you’re not on schedule with field tests in 2018, it’s just not going to go as planned.”
There are three big problems with a vacuum of leadership at the bureau at this particular political moment.
The first has to do with maintaining the basic function of the agency, which must follow a strict, 10-year schedule. “The Census is on a relentless calendar. You cannot postpone it,” Kenneth Prewitt, who was director of the Census Bureau during the 2000 Census, told TIME. “There’s a huge amount of planning and testing to do beforehand. With a leadership vacuum, things slow down.”
Lowenthal says she does not expect the Trump administration to nominate a replacement for Thompson this year, and even after that takes place, the Senate confirmation process could take many more months. With so many other vacancies in the federal government, it’s possible the role could remain unfilled for the next year or more.
The second big problem facing the agency has to do with money. Without a respected director to push Congress and the White House to give adequate funding to the bureau, the agency risks stumbling on a shoestring budget. In April, Congress allocated just $1.47 billion to the agency, roughly $150 million less than officials believe is necessary at this stage in the 10-year cycle. The President’s proposed 2018 budget provides just a minor bump, with $1.5 billion next year.
Without more funding, Sparks says, an interim leader may be forced to make grim choices. He or she may decide, for example, to roll out untested new internet-based programs, increasing the risk of a failure in 2020 (see Healthcare.gov), or to cannibalize other programs, like the annual American Community Survey or this year’s economic survey, which is used to inform consequential decisions at the Federal Reserve. An interim leader might also be forced to give up on an online census entirely, opting instead for the old school pencil and paper version the bureau has used for 220 years—a move that would save money in the short term, but end up costing tax payers, according to the Commerce Department, $5 billion more down the road over the full 10-year cycle.
The third main problem with a vacuum of leadership at the bureau at this political moment is a little more slippery. It has to do, watchdogs say, with the vagaries of public perception. “It is vital, it is critical, that the public has confidence in the integrity of the process and faith in the results,” said Lowenthal. “Anything that compromises that, compromises the whole mission.”
Prewitt warned that if the agency doesn’t receive the funds or political support it needs, it could force a public crisis. “If you underfund the census, you get an undercount,” he said. “And if you don’t count people, they are politically invisible, in effect.” If the 2020 Census appears to undercount certain populations or demographics in certain cities or states, he said, that could discredit the agency’s perceived competency.
Already, the Census Bureau has scaled back its 2020 advertising budget used to inform Americans about the Census takers who will be coming to their doors.
The public could also lose faith in the legitimacy of the Census results if they are seen to be politicized, Lowenthal said. If President Trump, for example, who has already ridiculed federal statistics and attacked federal institutions, were to “send one errant tweet during the Census calling into question the integrity of the process,” she warned, he could do a significant amount of damage, forcing what could become a Constitutional crisis.
It has happened before. After the 1920 Census, members of Congress refused to accept data showing the increasing urbanization of the country, and voted not to reallocate seats based on that supposedly flawed data.
Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican White House and Congressional aide, says it wouldn’t be the first time the agency’s work became a political hot potato. In 2009, Tea Party Republicans sought to undermine the bureau’s credibility by suggesting that its annual American Community Survey, or ACS, was an unreasonable intrusion into Americans’ privacy. In 2012, a Republican-led House voted 232 to 190 to abolish the ACS entirely.
In an email to TIME, Bartlett pointed out the damaging effect of a director who was seen to be pulling levers in favor of one political party or another. “The director of the Census makes a lot of important policy decisions about how much effort should be put into tracking down hard-to-find populations that can easily tilt the results,” Bartlett wrote. If a new Trump-appointed director was seen as making decisions that had the effect of excluding minorities, undocumented immigrants, or non-English speakers, that could have a ripple effect. The Census results would still be used to reallocate state and federal seats, “shifting representation and money from blue states to red states,” Bartlett wrote.
Prewitt said if that sort of scenario played out, it’s all over. “If you go down the channel where you’re making choices designed to benefit one of the parties,” he warned, “you’ve killed the census.”
Thompson, who will leave his post at the end of June, has a little more than six weeks to lay the groundwork for his successor, whoever that ends up being, and whenever that appointment occurs.