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Head Count by Hand

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Last week, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez told Congress the Census Bureau will have to go, quite literally, back to the drawing board. Come 2010, some Americans will be counted by handwritten pencil tallies, not handheld computers as planned.

How did it all go wrong? Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are likely to hear part of that story today. Bureau Director Steve H. Murdock, David Powner of the Government Accountability Office and a representative from Harris, the company that won a $600 million contract to build the devices, will testify at a hearing on the Field Data Collection Automation program that was scheduled before the Gutierrez announcement.

The panel's chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), wrote a letter last week demanding that Gutierrez send over all documents his office received on the data-collection program and Harris.

Perhaps Waxman and company should also take a look at a Senate hearing exchange on the handheld devices between Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Louis Kincannon, then director of the Census Bureau, in June 2006.

Coburn: "What happens if they don't work? What's your Plan B?"

Kincannon: "They will work. They have worked. You might as well ask me what happens if the Postal Service refuses to deliver the census form. . . ."

Coburn: "All I want you to do is answer my question. What if they don't work?"

Kincannon: "We have a big problem then."

-- Rachel Dry

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