Uncertainty hangs over the recovery this winter as economists try to tease out how much of the recent disappointing data is due to the unusually severe weather and how much is due to more worrisome weakness in the economy. To do this, they turn to government data — which now face uncertainty of their own.
Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, acknowledged the cloudy future of government-run statistical agencies on Tuesday, but he would make no promises about the defending the funding for economists who measure the nation's economic health.
"There are certainly going to be difficult choices in the budget when it comes to statistics," he said. "And there's going to be difficult choices in just about every area of the budget."
The White House is expected to release its budget for the 2015 fiscal year next week. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Labor Department was considering cuts to a program that tracks export and import prices, which play an important role in calculating inflation and output.
Furman, speaking over breakfast at the National Association for Business Economics' annual policy conference, said he agreed with his economist peers that funding statistical agencies is important. But he pointed to the obstacles for funding anything in the government: lingering spending restrictions that were part of the 2011 Budget Control Act and the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, which were partially but not completely repealed.
Furman's remarks came in response to an audience member who asked whether the White House would defend the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis from further funding cuts.
The question drew applause from the room of economists, who gathered to hear Furman describe the White House's economic outlook and the president's agenda. Furman said he did not disagree with the notion that protecting the data was important, even as he laid out the fiscal obstacles to doing so.
"We [at CEA] like to think of ourselves as focusing on the national interest and think economics is really a discipline that helps you train and think about that. We're less responsive to this constituency or that constituency," Furman said. "But to the degree we do have a constituency "¦ the one that's closest to our heart is federal data and its importance."