FAIRFAX, Va. - Countering criticism from congressional Republicans, Census Bureau Kenneth Prewitt said today the agency's long-form questionnaire is ''an essential tool'' in helping communities across the country.
Even questions that some Republicans labeled as intrusive, such as ''do you have a telephone?'' and ''are you a veteran?'' are useful to determine how local services are provided, Prewitt said during an appearance here aimed at promoting participation in the Census.
Some Republicans, including Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, said they have urged constituents to leave blank any questions they feel invade their privacy.
But today, Prewitt said: ''When they pause and look at how the information is being used, my guess is they will actually see its usefulness. People will recognize that this information is legally, socially and economically important.''
Speaking to reporters at a fire hall here, Prewitt also said he was unsure how the complaints would affect the willingness of citizens to return the forms. Through Wednesday, 46 percent of American households had responded to this year's survey.
A long form of the census questionnaire, which contains 53 questions, was sent to one in six of the country's some 115 million households, said Lott spokesman John Czwartacki. He said that Lott has received a number of complaints from constituents about the form.
''If there's a question that invades their privacy they should leave it blank,'' Czwartacki said, while at the same time urging everyone to fill out and return their forms.
At a Capitol news conference, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, senior Democrat on the House census subcommittee, said that six months ago, Lott and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., sought to require all recipients of the short form to state their marital status.
''You really cannot have it both ways, Senator Lott,'' Maloney said. ''You can't say you want to add questions and then complain that there are too many questions.''
House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt said today that Democrats ''haven't gotten criticism'' about the form.
''I think they've (Republicans) gotten worried that too many people are filling out the forms,'' Gephardt told reporters on Capitol Hill. ''To have top Republicans officials out complaining about the forms, I think, is just an effort to freeze people and keep people from filling out the forms.''
Gephardt charged that Republicans ''have been trying to frustrate this census from the beginning. They don't want more people counted because they think it serves their political purpose.That's a pretty shoddy reason to do what they're doing.''
Earlier this week, Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., urged people to answer just the first six questions on the long form before sending it back to the Census Bureau with a letter of protest.
''I'm appalled and outraged by the intrusiveness of this questionnaire,'' he said. ''It is ridiculous for the Census Bureau to ask personal questions that have nothing to do with their constitutional mandate to count the citizens of the United States.''
The Census Bureau said it has added just one question to the long form since 1990. Census officials say all of the questions they ask on the form are approved by Congress ahead of time, and most are essential for the distribution of federal funding.
Questions on the long form cover topics such as income, employment status and home value, while the short form contains only 8 questions about basic identifying information.
Maloney said in a letter addressed to colleagues in Congress that the only new question on this year's long form asks for information on grandparents as caregivers.
''The Census Bureau has gone to great effort within the mandates of Congress to make both the short and long forms as brief as possible,'' she said. ''What we should all be doing now is urging all of our constituents to fill out and send back their completed forms.''