Some critics of the law have voiced some suspicion as to possible political motivations for the timing of this change, seeing it as an attempt to obscure the effects of the law and make it harder to get reliable estimates. They cite the fact that some of the new questions were requested by the administration, and that senior officials had knowledge and approved of these pending changes.
I do not think conspiracy is the answer, but the real reason for this Census change is just as troubling, if not more so: incompetence.
The sheer amount of negative attention that these planned changes have gotten likely outweighs whatever political gains the administration could have hoped to capture in the first place. Aside from that, there are numerous other organizations, like Gallup, that measure health insurance coverage, so skeptics of the law will have other sources of data to turn to. If anything, it would appear that the White House was trying too hard to make sure they did not appear to be meddling in the affairs of the Census Bureau, which had unwisely planned to roll out these changes at an inopportune moment. Why this change was the line in the sand that the administration dared not cross when it has shown no such restraint in delaying many aspects of the law itself, such as the employer mandate, is hard to comprehend, but paints a picture more of an administration flailing to put out fires as they arise, rather than one even capable of pulling of the long term planning and coordination required for such a scheme.
While it appears the administration could have intervened and delayed the rollout of the new questions, they were not the driving force behind the changes. If anything, this was a mistake of what they chose not to do, rather than what they did.
These problems of coordination and competence within the government, where one government agency appears to be proceeding along with little to no regard or understanding for the broader context in which it operates, is in some ways more troubling, especially when we are talking about the massive new government foray into a sector that consumes almost 18 percent of our economy.
If they cannot even coordinate the measurement of health insurance effectively, how can they implement the law itself?
The administration has a chance to partially remedy their mistake. Republicans in both chambers have already introduced legislation to either delay the new questions or to use both sets concurrently for the next few years to establish a better baseline to look at the effects of the law on health insurance coverage.
Government, as inefficient and incompetent as it often is, can sometimes make honest mistakes, which I think this likely is; however, these mistakes should raise serious concerns about government’s abilities as it seeks to spread into even more aspects of the economy and our lives.
Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.