Lawmakers vary on Census savings claim

Wednesday - 8/11/2010, 7:07am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

It isn't every day that a federal agency gets to claim that it has saved $1.6 billion on its most important project. But that, in fact, is the claim from the Census Bureau and its parent agency, the Department of Commerce.

Congressional reaction to the announcement has pretty much fallen along party lines in both the House and Senate in the wake of yesterday's celebratory news conference by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who cited three main reasons for the savings:

  • Officials did not have to tap into a contingency fund for "unforeseen events we planned for, such as natural disasters or the H1N1 flu pandemic";
  • Census enumerators didn't have to do as many follow up interviews;
  • Officials saved additional money by streamlining internal operations.

"I'm proud of Dr. Groves, as well as the entire Census Bureau staff, for running such an efficient and well-oiled Census," says Rep. William Lacy Clay, (D-Mo). He is the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee which has direct oversight over the census.

Putting Monday's budget news in perspective, Clay recalls 2007 and 2008 when computer software development problems and the eventual decision not to proceed with the automation of many census activities, including the use of hand-held computers for the 2010 decennial count, rocked the preparation for the count.

"Let's face it, the Census started off in a rough space," he said in a Capitol Hill interview, "especially with the debacle of the hand-held and having to go back to paper, and hire these additional enumerators. But it also tells you with the support of Congress, the people at the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau can do an efficient job of counting Americans every decade."

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill reaction to the news of the $1.6 billion dollars in savings from the census varied along party lines.

Clay's colleague on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.), the panel's ranking member, issued a press release debunking the claimed savings, saying instead that the Census ran $3 billion over budget, and called it "smoke-and-mirrors budget gimmickry."

On the Senate side, Sen. Tom Carper (D.-Del.), whose subcommittee oversees the census, issued a statement congratulating Groves on the return of $1.6 billion dollars to the Treasury, and trumpeting his bill to streamline management of the 2020 Census.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, issued his own press release praising the news, saying, "A little bit of luck, hard work by census employees and the cooperation of people who mailed back their forms means this massive undertaking has come in under budget, a pleasant surprise."

Meanwhile, Groves says officials still have months of work to do this fall before they reach the Dec. 31st deadline for delivering the results of the 2010 Census.

As an example, Groves says census workers will be returning to 1 out of every 700 homes originally surveyed as part of a "coverage management operation." He says this is a survey intended to double-check the accuracy of the census information gathered since this spring. Results of this quality control census survey are not expected until 2012.

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