Census funding gets Senate scrutiny

NOTE: This article first appeared on FCW.com. 

Senators on both sides of the aisle raised issues with the proposed funding levels for tech-dependent 2020 Census.

The White House's fiscal year 2020 budget proposes about $6.5 billion. Recently confirmed Census Director Steven Dillingham said that the $14.1 billion level, if the president's proposed figure is ultimately enacted, would cover expected costs plus a range of contingencies.

That's substantially less money than predicted by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in an October 2017 estimate that pegged overall costs for the decennial population count at $15.6 billion and the 2020 share of that at $7.4 billion.

Since that estimate, the bureau has announced plans to both add a question on citizenship, which Census's own advisors have said will increase costs, as well as an added test to measure its potential effects.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over Commerce, said at an April 2 hearing, "the budget this year falls short."

Moran asked if the lower figure could still cover any unexpected challenges or potential needs for budgetary flexibility.

"We don't have a plan for it not being sufficient," Dillingham said.

Dillingham did, however, reserve the possibility that Census may need to ask Congress for more money "if something really unknown occurs, like a natural disaster, some type of intrusion [or] cybersecurity issue that no one could have foreseen or prevented."

He told senators part of his confidence came from a successful 2018 end-to-end test, the dress rehearsal for the census. However, that test did not include the citizenship question.

Dillingham added while he did not know the price tag associated with the question's inclusion, "efficiencies" created by the new tech in the 2020 census would offset any additional cost posed by the need to send more enumerators into the field for follow-up. Those efficiencies also explain the $1 billion reduction in the proposed budget, he said.

Outside experts do not agree, and the Government Accountability Office recently placed the 2020 census on its high-risk list of programs specifically because of "challenges associated with successfully implementing" new IT systems.

Following the hearing, Moran told FCW that while it was too early to predict what the ultimate appropriations figure for the census would be, "there was just this significant difference of what the secretary told us recently, a year ago, that would be required, and what is now being asked for."

On the other side of the Hill, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform voted to issue subpoenas to compel the testimony of John Gore, the senior Justice Department official who corresponded with Commerce officials about the reinstatement of the citizenship question.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.

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