Commerce secretary questioned about census, satellites

Commerce Secretary Locke today fielded congressional anger and frustration over the major problems he inherited with the politically sensitive 2010 census, huge cost overruns on weather and environmental monitoring satellites and the chronic delays in patent application approval.

Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., demanded to know how he would ensure the census was completed on time, despite the failure of the hand-held computer system, and would count everyone, without political bias. Shelby was particularly concerned about reports that the census director was considering using sampling techniques to overcome any undercount and would use the liberal activist group ACORN to help collect data.

Locke assured the panel he had the resources to complete the census on time, even though it would have to be conducted by paper and pencil; had "absolutely no intention to use sampling," and would not use ACORN or any other organization to collect the census data. He expressed some confidence that the FBI would be able to screen the more than 1 million census collectors, despite its backlog in other background checks.

The subcommittee leaders were equally angry over the mishandling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's two satellite programs, which are expected to cost billions of dollars more than originally planned for fewer satellites. Shelby said the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environment Satellite System was "a complete failure for NOAA and an even bigger failure for the taxpayers."

Locke acknowledged the problems and said the department has implemented many of the management improvements recommended by GAO, but admitted "much work remains to be done." Mikulski complained that the Patent and Trademark Office's record of taking years to approve patents on inventions was blocking innovation and allowing other nations to steal American inventions. "The time for talk is over. It's time for action," she said.