Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told the House Oversight Committee Thursday completing the 2020 census will require a budget of $15.6 billion, which represents a $3.3 billion, or 27 percent, increase over previous estimates.
Ross also told the committee they would have the proper funding needed for the immediate future and would have the next year "pretty well within hand," with an additional $187 million in funding for fiscal year 2018 for the Census Bureau. If that funding is received, it would allay numerous concerns about the amount of progress made or lack thereof on technology improvements meant to have been implemented over the past few years.
"We believe the 187 [million] will cover us through the fiscal year 2018, we're reasonably comfortable with that," Ross told the ranking Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. "The bigger risk comes after 2018 because that's when 80-plus percent of the money will be spent."
Ross said the Office of Management and Budget was on-board with the $187 million in increased funding for fiscal year 2018.
Budgeting for the census has become increasingly complex and increasingly political.
A Thursday report by the Washington Post illustrated what's at stake, showing a state like Alabama could lose congressional representation if even just a few thousand citizens are not counted. A proper census count can also determine how Congress allocates billions of dollars in the 10 years between each count.
"Some people will argue that the census was supposed to save billions of dollars this time around by using new IT innovations to reduce the number of workers it needs to hire and increase the number of people who submit their forms online," Cummings said in his opening remarks. "The problem is when you starve the Census Bureau year after year after year, it cannot make the investments needed to implement these innovations."
"On the whole, we found the prior administration provided Congress and the public with overly optimistic assessments of both the ease of implementing new technologies and the cost savings they would provide," Ross said minutes later in the hearing.
The Census Bureau is also still dealing with leadership issues after the sudden resignation of director John Thompson in May.
Ross told the committee a nominee for the director's position had been identified, but later fell through during the vetting process, so the search for a new director is still ongoing.
In addition to these challenges, Ross said the census was facing problems of declining interest in participation, as well as an increasing mistrust of the federal government.