Census receives $210 million in emergency funding for 2010 count

The money will cover extra costs the bureau will incur due to its decision not to use handheld computers to support the decennial census.

The Census Bureau will receive $210 million in emergency funding to cover cost overruns for the 2010 decennial census, despite a vow by the head of the Commerce Department to transfer funds to pay for the shortfall.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The bureau will use the emergency funds, included in the supplemental war spending bill signed by President Bush on Monday, to pay for an estimated budget shortfall for the 2010 decennial census. The gap was brought about by the bureau's decision to forgo use of handheld computers to count the 108 million Americans it estimates will not return paper forms.

Census scrapped its plans to use the handhelds under pressure from Congress and the Government Accountability Office, which repeatedly reported the contract to develop the devices was behind schedule, over budget and was not following proper testing procedures. The decision to revert to paper is expected to increase costs for the 2010 decennial census by as much as $3 billion, bringing life-cycle costs to more than $14 billion.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told the House Appropriations Committee on Commerce, Justice and Science on April 3 that the bureau would need between $160 million and $230 million in additional funds for fiscal 2008, or the decennial census would be at serious risk. Gutierrez told the panel that Commerce would transfer funds from within the department to cover the budget shortfall.

Bureau officials did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but sent the statement via e-mail saying, "The funding we've received will allow the Census Bureau to continue planning and performing critical tasks leading to the 2010 census. We remain confident that the next decennial census will be complete and accurate."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., objected to designating the extra money as emergency funds. "Emergency spending bills should be reserved only for true emergencies, and the 2010 census is not one of them," Coburn said on the Senate floor. "The Census Bureau has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past eight years preparing for the 2010 census. Yet, even that much time and that much money has not been enough to prevent the bureau from being woefully underprepared."

According to Coburn, the Census Bureau did not request emergency funding nor did it present a plan for how it would spend any extra funds. Bush sent a letter to Congress on June 9 asking for an increase in the fiscal 2009 budget request for the bureau, but asked that the money come from nonemergency spending with offsetting decreases to other programs. Congress approved the funding, however, as part of the emergency spending bill.

"The real emergency with the 2010 census is the failure, mismanagement and incompetence of the Census Bureau," Coburn said before raising a point of order objecting to the emergency designation of the $210 million.

Coburn cited evidence from congressional hearings and other reports to prove the problems and budget overruns were neither unforeseen nor sudden. He likened the money to a bailout and said that passing it would only encourage the bureau's perception that, regardless of circumstances, Congress always would provide the bureau with more funds.

"A vote to waive the rules on emergency spending in this situation is a vote to render the emergency spending rules meaningless," Coburn said. "We are going to borrow the money, and we are going to embrace and endorse incompetence."

The Senate defeated Coburn's 21-77, largely because by raising a point of order against designating the bureau funds as emergency he also was raising an objection to all the emergency spending in the domestic amendment to the supplemental, including funding for veterans' education and the extension of unemployment.