Will Trump Stand Behind Jobs Report He Called ‘Phony’?

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By Ben Penn and Chris Opfer

A group of House Democrats asked President Donald Trump whether he will support government jobs data, just before the release of a monthly employment report he previously called “phony.”

“We write to inquire about whether your Administration will continue the longstanding and bipartisan tradition of standing behind the BLS’s monthly employment report,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and the Democratic members of the Education and the Workforce Committee said Feb. 2 in a letter to the president.

The Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Feb. 3 that employers added 227,000 jobs in January, the greatest surge in four months (see related story). The BLS also said the nation’s unemployment rate stands at 4.8 percent.

The 17 lawmakers said they’re concerned about Trump’s commitment to the methods the BLS uses to calculate the nation’s unemployment rate, widely considered a reliable labor market snapshot and barometer of the country’s economic health. The figures are independently produced by career bureaucrats.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer didn’t respond when asked at a Feb. 3 press briefing whether the president would comply with the Democrats’ request not to interfere with the jobs report. Spicer instead addressed a second part of the question related to the payroll gain.

Trump on the campaign trail panned the BLS jobless rate as propaganda to support former President Barack Obama’s economic agenda, saying the real unemployment rate may be as high as 42 percent. Trump has suggested that the BLS rate doesn’t adequately account for workers who have stopped looking for jobs, as well as other slack in the labor market.

“In the event that you or your Administration endorse alternative metrics to gauge the nation’s unemployment rate, we trust you will communicate that decision to us and the American people forthwith, as well as your rationale for doing so,” the lawmakers said.

Fear of a ‘Political Animal.’

“Obviously we’re pleased; 227,000 jobs is a great kickoff,” Spicer said of the jobs report. “We hope they get better, we know that there’s a lot more work to do, and that’s why the president continues to meet with business leaders, union leaders to help figure out how we can grow the economy.”

The House Democrats wrote to the president a few days after the previous BLS commissioner’s term expired Jan. 27. Trump can now appoint a successor, causing concerns among some economists that he may tap someone to redirect the agency’s mission.

The commissioner is the agency’s sole political slot, but the job is intended to be a nonpartisan position. Previous administrations have followed that approach to ensure that the unemployment rate and job gains, among other indicators, are measured independently of White House influence.

The Trump White House can assuage the anxiety by nominating a qualified new BLS commissioner, said Timothy Kane, a conservative economist and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

“That will probably say more than anything, even than a statement from the White House, about the integrity of the process,” Kane, a former senior economist for Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, told Bloomberg BNA. “I have a lot of confidence that they will pick somebody good. If they pick somebody that is a political animal, that will be disturbing.”

“I’ve talked to some people who were part of the Trump transition and I think they’re really trying to find quality individuals,” Kane added.

Public Trust in Doubt?

Regardless of who’s appointed to direct the BLS, Trump’s past skepticism about the data risks impairing public trust in the once-reliable metrics, the House members said.

“When the BLS’s independent analysis of the nation’s labor market is mocked, politicized, and baselessly attacked, it not only delegitimizes the BLS’s critically important work,” Democrats wrote. “It also erodes the public’s trust.”

Other economists have discounted Trump’s previous statements as campaign rhetoric that they don’t expect to translate into White House policy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com and Chris Opfer in Washington at copfer@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the letter is available at http://src.bna.com/lWR.

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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