UNLESS CONGRESS does something, employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a venerable and worthy federal agency, will soon be required to take a day off without pay every week or two. These so-called furloughs could disrupt collection and compilation of basic information on the economy's performance in such realms as wages, prices, unemployment and productivity.
None of the principal actors in the somewhat chaotic budget process that produced this result says he was for it or even intended it to happen. It was just one of the many things that happened last year when the Office of Management and Budget and Senate leaders forced through a continuing appropriation for most government operations right before the Christmas recess. BLS came up so short because it was one of the unlucky agencies that, by chance, got stuck with a 16 percent across-the- board spending cut.
BLS has absorbed almost 12 percent of the cut by reducing or eliminating 19 programs dealing with such subjects as labor turnover, strikes and state and local unemployment and planned improvements in price and income information. Its skilled statisticians, economists and data processors are leaving the agency in droves. This attrition saves money, but it may also hinder the agency's operations for years to come.
When administration officials finally figured out what their budget cuts had done, OMB requested a supplemental appropriation to cover some of BLS's shortfall for the remainder of the year. Members of both houses of Congress are sympathetic to the request, but neither house has taken action. With the fiscal year more than half over, BLS had no recourse but to issue the furlough notice this week in order to stay within its budget for the remainder of the year.
What seems to be delaying action is an unwillingness by either house to go first in voting additional money. Both are holding back for a variety of trivial reasons of protocol. These niceties should not stand in the way of prompt action after both houses get back to business.