Even the green eyeshade crowd is feeling the heat of federal budget cuts. They occupy tiny corners of Washington office space but have outsized impact — measuring everything from energy use to the price of labor in China. Data from U.S. statistical agencies can move financial markets, guide government spending and drive corporate decision-making.
Mink breeders — along with rice, hops, catfish and dairy farmers — took an early hit when the Department of Agriculture killed their surveys as part of an effort to save taxpayers $8.4 million. At other agencies, data on regional income, labor costs and foreign investment have been lost. The annual mink census cost $60,000.
Now bigger cuts are looming as the Fed looks to slow the growth of its $3.65 trillion balance sheet and Congress heads for a showdown on spending and debt limits.
Data are not something to be trifled with, says Barry Bosworth, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Before the recession, Congress repeatedly rejected funding requests from the Census Bureau to survey financial and real estate companies. Lawmakers relented only after subprime mortgages toppled Lehman Brothers.
“We just went through a terrible recession caused in good part because we didn’t know what the hell was going on out there,” Bosworth says. “These are such small items in the budget it doesn’t make any sense.”
The agencies are a relative bargain. The Bureau of Economic Analysis tracks the $16.7 trillion U.S. economy with fewer than 500 employees and a $90 million budget — less than half the New York Yankees’ payroll. Combined, the 14 offices cost taxpayers less than $3.8 billion this year out of a federal budget of $3.5 trillion.