Updated Dec 9, 2022 - Economy

The rule that silences the White House on economic data

Illustration of a zipped mouth emoji with dollar sign eyes

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Within a few minutes of major economic data releases, news organizations send out alerts, analysts push out research notes, and Economics Twitter parses the details and implications.

  • But White House officials — who presumably have the most reason to celebrate a good number, or explain away a bad one — have to keep quiet until well after the initial flurry of discourse has passed.

Why it matters: It is a case study in how rules set in a different era can long outlive their practical usefulness — and in this case, oddly limit economic debates.

Catch up quick: A Nixon-era rule says executive branch officials must keep mum on a range of indicators for a full hour after the release.

  • Some former and current economic policy officials view this as outdated and inconvenient in an era of fast-moving information. But no one, it seems, has been able to update it.

Driving the news: Upon entering office, officials across several administrations, including the current one, were at first puzzled by one sentence in the nearly 2,500-word directive, which states: “[E]mployees of the Executive Branch shall not comment publicly on the data until at least one hour after the official release time.”

  • The rule also spells out that economic data must be issued in a press release or another printed report, and indicators must be consistently released at a pre-determined time.

At the very least, the rule proved to be a major scheduling annoyance.

  • During the Obama era, the departure of Air Force One would have to be delayed in a few instances so President Obama could comment on good jobs numbers and still be in compliance with the rule, former Council of Economic Advisers chair Jason Furman tells Axios.
  • “In a world where every analyst can post and share detailed thoughts on the data on Twitter and elsewhere minutes after, it is fanciful to believe that the government can really do much to shape the interpretation of the data,” Furman says.

Flashback: In 2019, the Trump administration — which broke the rule at least twice — explored changing it. That hit a dead end after worried responses from the statistics community.

What they’re saying: “There is a lot to be said in favor of letting the data speak for themselves,” says Jim Stock, another Obama administration CEA member.

  • Still, “the one hour rule is fairly old and with modern information technology that could potentially be shortened, so it is easier to get the White House perspective into the conversation,” says Stock (who adds that he, of course, abided by the directive).

The backstory: When the rule was first instituted in the early 1970s (and strengthened in 1985), there was no social media, cable news — and certainly no instant analysis by Econ Twitter.

  • There were, however, rampant concerns among statistics wonks that lines could be muddled between neutral descriptions of economic data from statistics agencies and political statements from the White House.
  • There were simultaneous, yet opposing characterizations of labor market developments in 1971 — one from the technocrats at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and another from the White House, which painted a rosier picture, according to a written history of the BLS.

Where it stands: The one-hour rule was meant to draw a bright line between the policy-neutral statistics and political commentary so the public knew the difference.

  • “Holding commentary for a while to allow data to be absorbed and analyzed by the market makes sense to me,” says Laura Tyson, who served as President Bill Clinton's CEA chair in the early 1990s.

The bottom line: “While watching Jobs Day tweets roll in without being able to say anything ourselves is not the most fun White House ritual, we are not discussing any changes to the one-hour rule," a White House spokesperson tells Axios.

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