In her opening statement, Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) called the government’s preparations for the count “woefully inadequate.”
“Whether through incompetence or intentional action, this administration’s failures risk causing grave harm to this year’s census that could jeopardize a complete and accurate count,” she said.
The GAO report found the bureau lagged behind its goal to recruit more than2.5 million people by early this month to conduct the count; as of Feb. 3, it had recruited more than 2.1 million.
In addition, the report said that the bureau has not met an interim target to form 300,000 community partnerships by March, that the bureau still faces “significant cybersecurity challenges” and that it was at risk of not meeting testing milestones for its plan to conduct the census largely digitally for the first time.
“Today’s stark warnings from GAO reflect similar concerns that this committee has been raising for the past several years with increasing urgency,” Maloney said. “There are grave challenges facing this year’s census, and to be honest, I don’t have full confidence that the administration is equipped to handle them.”
Bureau Director Steven Dillingham disputed the report’s analysis, telling the committee that “from the point of view of the Census Bureau, we are not behind.” In terms of recruiting goals, he said, “We will meet our target by March 1 and then surpass it.”
Data from the decennial census is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding each year and to determine redistricting and congressional representation for a decade. For each count, the bureau hires hundreds of thousands of people to go door to door and work in offices, and partners with businesses and nonprofit groups to help educate local communities about the survey.
Lawmakers pressed Dillingham about his ability to carry out the first digital censuscount smoothly, especially in light of recent disastrous governmental attempts to go digital.
“I must tell you, the Iowa primary debacle comes to mind when I think of the census going digital, so I’m interested in the bureau’s plans in the event that the systems in fact experience some kind of attack or disaster,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a nonvoting Democratic delegate who represents the District of Columbia. “Have you made upgrades to ensure that the data would not be lost in the event of a disaster? Can you assure us that you could always recover data?”
Dillingham said the bureau had remedied issues raised by the inspector general and had “redundant storage” for data.
“But I’m talking about data that is lost,” Norton insisted.
Nortonasked Nick Marinos, a co-author of the GAO report who testified at Wednesday’s meeting, whether he was satisfied that all data could be recovered in the event of a disaster.
“We mention in our report that we’re issuing today that we’re still waiting to see the bureau finalize their plans,” Marinos said.
Albert Fontenot Jr., associate director for decennial census programs, told the committee that data would be stored in several places in the cloud and backed up regularly. “At worst case, we would send someone out to re-collect that data,” he said.
Democrats and Republicans bickered over whose fault it was that so much time had been spent on the citizenship question, which the Trump administration had said it needed to help enforce the Voters Rights Act but that opponents said was designed to scare immigrants away from filling out the form.
“The Democrats have needlessly spent our time focusing on the citizenship question in an effort to score political points,” said ranking Republican Jim Jordan (Ohio).
But Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) blamed the Trump administration “that tried for nearly a year to add an illegal citizenship question to the census. . . . The administration should have been focusing on preparing for the census and dealing with all the complexities of the census rather than advancing this flawed and doomed political agenda.”
Several lawmakers pushed Dillingham to do more to counter disinformation.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) asked whether he would request that the Republican National Committee stop sending out fundraising mailers crafted to look as if they are questionnaires from the Census Bureau.
“This is not the first time that we have seen the RNC . . . try to confuse voters by sending them a mailer that imitates the census,” she said, adding that Congress passed a law to prevent the look-alike mailings after similar ones were sent during the 2010 Census. “Have you asked the RNC to cease and desist from using the term 2020 Census or official census in its mailings?”
Dillingham said: “I would have to look and see. I’m not sure who sent that out.”
“I am,” Porter responded, pointing at small print on the form indicating it was from the RNC.
“We will study this problem,” Dillingham said.
At a January committee hearing, representatives from civil society organizations testified that traditionally hard-to-count communities were at risk of being undercounted, particularly in a political environment many immigrants perceive as hostile. Surveys of immigrant groups also show that a significant portion still believe the citizenship question will appear on the form.
Responding to a question from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Dillingham confirmed the citizenship question would not appear on the form.
But when she asked whether the bureau would advise the public of this “clearly and decisively,” Dillingham replied that people were “more interested in knowing the benefits” of filling out the census, rather than in talking about what would not be on the form.