WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers criticized Census officials Wednesday saying with only weeks until the 2020 count is fully underway the bureau’s preparations are “woefully inadequate” to accurately track the nation’s population.
“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,’’ said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
The committee held a hearing focusing on a new Government Accountability Office report that cited challenges facing the Census Bureau, including hiring enough workers, partnering with enough community groups and protecting its computer systems from hacking.
“Without timely and appropriate actions, the challenges ... could adversely affect the cost, accuracy, schedule and security of the enumeration,” the report concluded.
Census officials defended their readiness noting among other goals, a plan to hire as many as 500,000 people who will go door to door to count people who haven’t responded to the questionnaire. As of Wednesday, the bureau had 2.3 million completed applications, officials said.
“We’re way ahead of what’s needed,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told lawmakers. "We are on mission, on target ad on budget...We are not behind."
But Maloney said the GAO report seems to be sending “flashing red lights.”
“We have to respond to these red flags,” she said at the end of the three-hour hearing.
Plans for the nationwide count have been underway for years. The population survey is key to apportioning Congressional districts and determining the distribution of billions in federal funds for schools, infrastructure and health systems.
Civil rights groups have raised concerns about whether the Census Bureau has been properly funded and whether it has enough staff to accurately count people, particularly historically hard-to-count minority communities.
GAO officials said the bureau has met some early targets, but has fallen short on several key measures.
J. Christopher Mihm, managing director of Strategic Issues for the Government Accountability Office, said the bureau has missed milestones for establishing community partners, which he called key to helping count hard-to-count communities.
“We need people to be encouraged to participate in the Census … This is what partnerships do. They are trusted’’ partners in the community, Mihm said.
Dillingham said he’s confident the bureau will have enough community partners and could supersede the number from the last Census.
But in an exchange with Dillingham, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida, questioned why the full list of community partners was not yet available. Dillingham said the release wasn’t up to him and he didn’t know who would decide that.
“That’s outrageous,’’ Wasserman Schultz said calling it “a deliberate obstacle’’ to accurately count hard-to-count communities.
Dillingham took issue with her charge and promised to get the information, but didn’t say exactly when.
But Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina also questioned when Dillingham will release information about the community partners. “I need you to get that to this committee this week,’’ he said.
“That was a softball question,’’ Meadows said. “I need it this week… Turn around and ask’’ your staffers behind you.
Dillingham did. “I got a firm yes for you,’’ he responded to Meadows.
While Republicans also questioned whether Census officials were ready, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan complained Democrats failed to oversee the preparation of the Census and instead spent too much time pushing back on the administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the Census. That effort failed.
“I still do not understand why the Democrats do not want to know how many U.S. citizens are living in the United States of America,’’ said Jordan, the top Republican on the committee.
Democrats, including Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, repeatedly urged Census officials to remind people the question will not be included in the questionnaire.
“We are in fact ensuring that everyone knows that,’’ Dillingham said.
Nick Marinos, director of Information Technology and Cybersecurity at the GAO, said the bureau has made process in addressing cyber security concerns, but some challenges remain, including guarding against disinformation on social media. He also said the bureau needs to make sure its systems are tested before going live in a few weeks.
“We’re in a pressure cooker of time,’’ he said.