One casualty of the government shutdown is that key agencies no longer are producing exactly the kind of budget information on deficits, spending and the economy that could help inform Congress as it debates just those issues.
Indeed, it’s impossible to even know whether a government shutdown will end up saving or costing money, with the scorekeepers off duty and too many uncertainties about how it will play out.
At least three major reports already have been scuttled by the shutdown: Last week, the Labor Department canceled release of the September jobs report, and the Congressional Budget Office and the Treasury Department said they won’t be completing their monthly budget reviews, which means the government doesn’t know the final deficit for fiscal year 2013, which ended a week ago.
“Because a lapse in appropriated funds has caused CBO to largely shut down its operations, the Monthly Budget Review will not be published today or during the duration of the government shutdown,” the agency said.
The shutdown also will delay another CBO report promised this month, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which studies fiscal issues. That report would have been very welcome right now — it was supposed to lay out tax and spending options for reducing the deficit.
“The irony of this whole thing is we just shut down our means to have those budget options to avoid the shutdown,” said Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the committee.
As the shutdown extends into its second week, all sides are wondering about the political and fiscal impacts.
But there’s little certainty about the latter.
The 1995 and 1996 shutdowns cost the government $1.4 billion, according to a Clinton budget office report at the time. Translated to today’s dollars, that works out to $2.1 billion. A major chunk of that was for back pay for employees who were furloughed.
Some analysts said the shutdown this time could end up saving money because programs are being halted and there aren’t as many employees to pay. Other analysts said it takes money to shut down and start up operations.
“That makes sense because it is costing money to mothball and open things, and shutdowns involve that,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former CBO director and now president of the conservative American Action Forum — though he said given the size of the federal budget, the cost of a shutdown is “not a lot of money.”
The longer the shutdown continues, the more reports are likely to be delayed.
The problem for federal agencies is that the number crunchers have been furloughed as part of the 800,000 federal employees whose jobs weren’t deemed essential to protecting life or property.
At the CBO, only about 10 percent of agency employees are on the job. Those are analysts who are dealing with bills that are actively under consideration in Congress — which in the past week has meant individual spending bills the House has passed to try to reopen some parts of government.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said the lack of information works to the White House’s advantage because it hides bad numbers about the state of the budget.
“Discovered another reason why WH likes the ‘shutdown’ other than it thinks it is ‘winning.’ The Congressional Budget Office won’t publish reports due to lapse of funds. Guess the WH thinks no news on fiscal matters is good news,” Mr. Cornyn said in a Twitter message.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said the lack of data isn’t catastrophic but does hurt.
“In general, policymakers have very little feel for how the economy’s doing in real time. At best, you’re getting something that’s a month old, and this will make that worse,” he said.
He also said that the calculations of damage to the economy are probably overblown.
“I think that to date, the ratio of hyperventilation to real economic harm is nearly infinite,” he said.
He noted that the shutdown right now is relatively partial, with most federal workers still on the job keeping spending apace.
“The U.S. economy is not a bunch of food trucks sitting outside NASA,” he said.
Even amid the shutdown, some numbers are still coming in.
The Treasury Department is producing the Daily Treasury Statement showing the status of the federal debt, and just last week the department released a politically tinged report arguing that bumping up against the debt limit could cause the worst recession since the Great Depression.
In the report, titled “The Potential Macroeconomic Effect of Debt Ceiling Brinkmanship,” the administration argued that the 2011 debt fight, when Congress raised the limit at the last minute, provided just a taste of how bad it would be if the limit isn’t raised and the government defaults.
The general lack of information has left private analysts to fill the gap with their own calculations and data.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing, for example, asked for anecdotal stories from workers about their search for jobs in lieu of the official jobs report.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, issued a report arguing that if the government continued spending without regard to the deficit, the economy might have added 260,000 jobs.
Analysts said the data for the September report were collected in the middle of last month and still could be compiled. But they said a bigger fear is if the shutdown extends into the middle of October, which could damage the department’s ability to collect data for this month’s report.