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White House Politicizing Bureau of Labor Statistics (PJM Exclusive)

Yes — that's the nonpartisan agency that releases monthly unemployment figures.

by
Richard Pollock

Bio

December 19, 2011 - 12:00 am

On the eve of the 2012 election, the White House is pushing to politicize the impartial U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The administration is also trying to bypass the congressional oversight that protects the independence of the neutral agency.

The BLS is the nation’s premier nonpartisan statistical agency reporting on the state of the American labor market. For more than a century, both political parties have considered BLS to be independent and politically untouchable.

The BLS monthly unemployment data is a key factor contributing to the president’s unpopularity.

Over the last year, the administration has refused to fill the two top BLS positions. They have yet to nominate anyone to replace outgoing BLS Commissioner Keith Hall, whose term expires in January, and the number two post previously held by Deputy Commissioner Philip Rones has been vacant since last summer. Rones had been the bureau’s deputy since 2003, and made it widely known ahead of time that he would be retiring by the middle of 2010.

BLS career professional and Associate Commissioner John Galvin has been given limited responsibilities to cover some of the deputy duties on an acting basis, but the White House has indicated it has no interest in promoting Galvin to the post of commissioner.

A retired career economist at the U.S. Department of Labor told PJ Media the administration wants to put its own political allies into the bureau, eschewing promotion from within:

Traditionally, the deputy commissioner position has been filled by promotion from within the ranks of experienced BLS career professionals, and when Rones retired from the deputy job last summer, Hall proposed promoting a highly qualified associate commissioner [John Galvin] to the position. The labor secretary and deputy secretary rebuffed that and made it clear that they wanted someone of their choosing from outside the existing career cadre.

The Senate could get involved by exercising its Senate confirmation process for a new commissioner — but the administration has circumvented the process by not nominating anyone. Nominations usually are announced as early as six months before the expiration of a term, but with a few weeks left before Hall leaves office, it is clear no commissioner will be running the bureau through much of 2012.

This has led to speculation that the White House is trying to circumvent the Senate so as to appoint a deputy whose position does not need Senate confirmation, and who would defer to the White House and to politically aggressive Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

One source told PJ Media the president would like to install Betsey Stevenson as the deputy commissioner. Stevenson is a Princeton academic and loyal political ally who worked as chief economist for Solis. Stevenson would be rejected by many in the Senate, which has regarded political allies as inappropriate for running the nonpartisan BLS.

Although the meddling with the BLS has received little coverage, economists and Republicans in Congress are decrying the effort. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor under the Bush administration, called the administration’s tactics “outrageous.” She told PJ Media that meddling with the BLS personnel process could be a prelude to eventual tampering with unemployment surveys and results:

There is concern that somehow the administration will try to influence the employment numbers in this very important year coming up for election by putting a designated individual in that slot and getting around the Senate confirmation process.

In a November 29 letter to Secretary Solis, Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY) — ranking Republican on the Senate Labor Committee — expressed alarm over the administration’s handling of personnel at the bureau. He warned it would be counterproductive to try to politicize the bureau through appointments that circumvent Senate confirmation:

To have credibility, an agency must be free — and perceived to be free — of political interference and policy advocacy.

A retired career economist at the Labor Department told PJ Media the administration’s efforts could damage the bureau’s reputation for a long time:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ tradition of professionalism and objectivity has been built on over 100 years of history of independence from political influence. … Its continued independence from political influence is crucial to the success of its mission and to maintaining the trust that its data receives.

Senator Enzi also directly wrote William Daley, the president’s chief of staff, about the lack of a nomination:

I would like to know when the administration intends to nominate a commissioner.

To date, Enzi has not received any reply from the White House or the Department of Labor.

Commissioner Hall himself could have been renominated, which has been the norm for many administrations.  (President Reagan renominated a BLS commissioner from the Carter administration.) Hall has a completely uncontroversial record as commissioner. He was named to the post in 2007, and approved that same year by a unanimous Senate vote.

The administration’s job description for the deputy position illustrates the administration’s politicization effort — rather than emphasize the independent status of the post, it states the deputy commissioner will be “assisting the Secretary of Labor in presenting the Department’s interests and policies to Congress, other government agencies, and the public.” In other words: instead of an independent official, the deputy commissioner would be an advocate for administration positions.

A 1998 job description for the same position does not mention any advocacy work on behalf of the Labor Department.

Senator Enzi told PJ Media:

I have concerns with an apparent attempt to circumvent the Senate’s constitutional role of advice and consent with respect to the Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner.

Even more concerning, however, is a requirement that the deputy commissioner “assist the Secretary in presenting the Department’s interests and policies to Congress, other government agencies and the public” and conduct studies for “evaluating the effectiveness of Department of Labor programs.” It is inappropriate for an employee in an independent statistical agency — much less the second in command and potential acting head of that agency — to participate directly in advocating for the Department’s overall policies and interests and/or in providing critiques of Departmental programs. Indeed, one of the four basic principles for a statistical agency is that to have credibility, an agency must be free — and must be perceived to be free — of political interference and policy advocacy.

Richard Pollock is the Washington, D.C., editor for PJ Media and the Washington bureau chief of PJTV.
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