Senate Bill gives Census Director a Fixed Five-year Term; Removes Senate Confirmation for BJS and NCES Heads

By Steve Pierson posted 05-13-2011 16:09

A bill sponsored by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) would make the Census Bureau directorship a fixed, five-year term. Unfortunately, the bill, S. 679, "The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011," also removes Senate confirmation for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Commissioner and the Bureau of Justice Statistics Director.

S. 679 addresses delays in confirming administration positions by removing senate confirmation for nearly 200 presidential appointments.

The inclusion of the fixed term for the Census Director in this bill (thanks to Senator Thomas Carper (D-DE)) is excellent news for the federal statistics community, which has long supported such a provision. Readers may recall that a fixed, five-year term was a prominent part of H.R. 4945/S. 3167, "The Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act of 2010," introduced in the last Congress by Sen. Carper, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA). (See the February Amstat News piece, "Bill Increasing U.S. Census Bureau Autonomy Fizzles," and a previous blog entry, "House to take up Census Autonomy Bill today.")

A fixed term for the head of any statistical or science agency is widely viewed as a means to insulate that agency from improper outside influence. It is also seen as a means to facilitate long term planning and management, which is especially important for the decennial census.

Senate confirmation is seen as providing stature to a position as well as a check on administration powers.

The National Academies' "Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency," endorsed by the ASA Board of Directors, speaks to the importance of presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed, fixed terms for statistical agency heads:
"An agency head’s independence can be strengthened by being appointed for a fixed term by the President, with approval by the Senate ..." (p. 22)
NCES and BLS are the only statistical agencies that currently meet these three criteria. The heads of EIA, BJS and the Census Bureau meet all but the fixed-term criterion.

If the head positions for NCES and BJS were to lose Senate confirmation, it would add to existing concerns about NCES and BJS. Reflecting this concern, 2009 ASA President Sally Morton sent letters to Attorney Gener al Eric Holder and to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the stature and autonomy of BJS and NCES, respectively.

The 2009 National Academies' report, "Ensuring the Quality, Credibility, and Relevance of U.S. Justice Statistics," also express concern for BJS independence:
"BJS generally espouses the principles and practices of a federal statistical agency, but it has sustained major shocks to its position of independence as a national statistical resource in recent years. We suggest two strong organizational measures to reduce the likelihood that BJS and its officials are inappropriately treated in the future." (p. 1)
The report makes a strong statement for the  importance of Senate confirmation and, like the 5/19/09 Morton letter to Attorney General Holder, urges a fixed term for the BJS director (along with other recommendations):
  • "We view a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation as a necessity for the BJS directorship, carrying with it the stature to interact effectively with the appointees at the top ranks of the Justice Department." (p. 244)
  • Concluding that BJS’s current administrative position within the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) is detrimental to the agency’s function, we recommend that BJS be moved out of OJP. We further recommend that the position of BJS director be made a fixed-term presidential appointment with Senate confirmation." (p. 1)
  • "Recommendation 5.4: Congress and the administration should make the BJS director a fixed-term presidential appointee with the advice and consent of the Senate. To insulate the BJS director from political interference, the term of service should be no less than 4 years." (p. 9)
A recent report from the American Educational Research Association, "Report and Recommendations for the Reauthorization of the Institute of Education Sciences," also addresses NCES autonomy and stature issues. (See "AERA Report Calls for More Independence for National Center for Education Statistics; Echoing ASA Sentiment.") Recommendation 1 from the report reads,
"The Commissioner of Education Statistics should report directly to the Secretary of Education, while continuing to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a six-year term."
S. 679 has been approved at the committee level and now awaits floor action. ASA will work with the the broader community to support the Census Director fixed-term provision of S. 679 and to address the NCES and BJS provisions. ASA will closely monitor subsequent S. 679 developments, including House counterpart bills.
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06-30-2011 09:25

6/30 update: The Senate yesterday passed S. 679 with the fixed, five-year term for the Census Director but with the provisions removing Senate confirmation of the BJS and NCES heads intact. The Washington Post reported today that the House intends to pass the bill: "Senate votes to streamline confirmation process":
See related blog post by following related link entry above.