Science &Technology in Congress
In the early weeks of June, a political battle was waged between Congressional leaders and the President over a supplemental bill to appropriate disaster relief funds for the flood-ravaged Midwest, and to pay for foreign peacekeeping operations in FY 1997. The funds, however, were not so much the issue as two provisions included in the first version of the bill submitted to the President. One item would prevent government shutdowns like the ones that occurred in 1995 and 1996. The other provision would prohibit the use of statistical sampling in the year 2000 census.
Sampling is a statistical technique in which a representative sample is used to estimate the characteristics of a larger population. The Census Bureau would use this technique in the 2000 Census to estimate the demographics of households which are missed using the traditional "headcount" method.
Many Republicans in Congress have maintained stiff opposition to the Administration's proposed use of sampling in the national census, pointing out that the Constitution calls for an "actual enumeration" of the U.S. populace (Article 1, Section 2, clause 3). Opponents of sampling also claim that it would make the census susceptible to political manipulation, and less accurate. But possibly the prime motivating factor for Republicans is the likelihood that sampling would allow the census to include a lot of inner-city minorities, typically Democratic voters, who have been missed in years past.
Regardless of the political and legal debate raging around its use in the census, statistical sampling is widely regarded by the science community as an effective and accurate tool. The National Academy of Sciences has repeatedly endorsed sampling as a way of conducting a more cost-effective and more accurate census, as have professional societies like the American Statistical Association.
The Administration is solidly in favor of sampling in the 2000 Census, and the President wasted no time in vetoing the disaster relief bill with the sampling ban. A similar version of the $8.6 million measure, minus the controversial provisions, was passed by Congress and signed by the President three days later, on June 12. The fight for the sampling provision was short but politically damaging for Congressional Republicans. GOP leaders found it difficult to defend their position when confronted by TV coverage of flood damage in the Midwest. However, the debate is likely to be renewed when Congress considers funding legislation for the Department of Commerce, home to the Census Bureau, later this summer.