Census, Congress spar on funds

Cost overruns lead to brinksmanship that threatens other department program funds.

The Commerce Department’s plan to minimize the use of handheld computers in the 2010 census will cost billions, and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez plans to pay for it, in part, by taking money from other Commerce programs.

However, Gutierrez’s plan hit a roadblock when he and Census Director Stephen Murdock presented it to the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommitttee. The panel’s members balked at the idea of allowing administration officials to unilaterally change the allocation of funds set by Congress.

Gutierrez said his plan would reduce the targeted programs to a level of funding in the administration’s original budget request, which drew objections from some lawmakers on the subcommittee.

The actions of Commerce officials suggest they are engaging in gamesmanship, said Alan Balutis, a former Commerce chief information officer.  Officials appear to be repudiating the budgets established by Congress and putting the onus on lawmakers to agree to their funding plan or risk compromising the census, he said.

Some of the specific programs that Gutierrez proposed scaling back, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Technology Innovation Program, have been on the chopping block many times before, Balutis said.

Since the Reagan administration, Commerce officials have sought to scale back those programs despite objections from  Congress. “Eventually, we just said, ‘We’re sending up our Don Quixote list,’ just tilting at the windmills,” said Balutis, who is now director at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group.

Balutis identified two other programs that Commerce has targeted: the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program and the Economic Development Administration’s Economic Development Assistance Programs.  Those programs are grant-giving initiatives that normally do not get awarded until the end of the fiscal year, Balutis said. Funding for three of the programs that Commerce has targeted did not appear in the president’s budget request, which made them natural targets for reprogramming, he added.

The department has decided to use handheld computers only for preliminary address canvassing. Follow-up interviews, in which Census employees go to addresses that did not return census forms, will now be done with old-fashioned paper forms instead of handheld computers.

Gutierrez and Murdock told the subcommittee that the bulk of the additional money they need is for hiring and training new employees, printing paper forms, buying fuel and postage, and using data centers. The total cost increase is expected to be $2.2 billion to $3 billion. The department needs some of that money soon, and it plans to spread the total cost across four fiscal years, ending in 2011. The total cost to conduct the census would rise to $14.5 billion with the added costs.

In fiscal 2009, the additional cost could be $600 million to $700 million.  For this fiscal year, Commerce needs between $165.8 million and $232.8 million.  The agency needs $33 million of that amount in the next month or it might have to furlough employees, Gutierrez said.

“There would be a tremendous impact” if the funds don’t come quickly, Gutierrez said. “It would put the quality of the census at risk.”

However, some subcommittee members refused to give assurances that Congress would provide the $33 million. Some were displeased with Gutierrez’s plans to take appropriated funds from existing programs.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.V.) suggested that Commerce request an emergency supplemental appropriation rather than cut funds for other activities.
“I find it illogical that this administration would expect this Congres s to eliminate funding provided for important programs over the levels in the president’s budget to pay for a problem created solely by this administration,” Mollohan said.

A former Capitol Hill staff member suggested Commerce has the advantage. Congress has increased funding for programs “that Commerce doesn’t really care to fund, then the best thing to do with House members is give up those programs and reapprove [the funds] for the census, which you care about,” the former staff member said.

The census plays a major role in congressional redistricting, but the Senate, where members do not depend on where the district lines are drawn, might be less willing than the House to approve additional funds, the former staff member said.

This isn’t the first time that funding issues have affected the Census Bureau. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration introduced a controversial approach to simplifying census data through statistical sampling, but  members of Congress questioned the legality of the sampling process. The debate turned into litigation and led to a Supreme Court ruling in 1999 against the sampling proposal. With that detail worked out only at the last minute, Congress approved supplemental funding to carry out the 2000 census. 

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