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Congress: No more unemployment data for U.S.

May 1, 2013: 2:28 PM ET

schoolhouse-rock-bill2Republican representatives want to gut the way we collect national economic data.

FORTUNE -- Bummed out by the latest unemployment or GDP report? Don't worry, Congress wants to help you out. Not by adding jobs or increasing productivity, but by eliminating the government surveys that help calculate such statistics in the first place.

It's called the Census Reform Act of 2013 (H.R. 1638), and would restrict the U.S. Census Bureau from conducting "any survey, sampling, or other questionnaire" outside of the decennial population census (which itself would receive new limitations).

So that means no more Current Population Survey, the voluntary questionnaire that underlies the monthly unemployment report published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Also no more Economic Census, the mandatory questionnaire sent out every five years to U.S. businesses which helps create a baseline for quarterly and annual GDP reports.

So an obvious question for bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and the 10 Republican congressmen who have signed on as co-sponsors: Do you not think such data is worth collecting? Or do you think it should be done though alternate means? And, if the latter, why isn't that broached in the 1-page bill?

I reached out to Rep. Duncan's spokesman who said a formal press release on the latter would be forthcoming later today. He declined to comment further.

Also no response yet from nine of the 10 co-sponsors. That included Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), whose communications director not only said he hadn't heard of the bill, but also that he didn't have access to his boss' schedule for today.

The one exception was Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who rang me from his cell phone while walking down a New York City street. He argued that the Census Bureau has "overtaken its original intentions and bounds," particularly when it comes to "threatening people with jail" if they don't fill out the Economic Census (it's technically up to a $5,000 penalty, but Chaffetz thinks folks would be sent to jail if they refused to pay). Unclear if he therefore thinks the Economic Survey should simply be reclassified as voluntary -- a move that may reduce its statistical validity -- particularly given that the bill would seem to prohibit that too.

As for the the voluntary Current Population Survey, Chaffetz said that he believes "private entities" could do a better job collecting economic data than can government agencies.

When I followed up by asking if that meant the federal government would hire an outside firm to produce its "official" unemployment figure, he was noncommittal. Instead, he said that the bill likely would get "tightened up" as time progressed and that the original language was a way to "generate attention" to the overall issue of Census Bureau overreach.

UPDATE: Rep. Duncan has now released a statement. It reads, in part:

"These surveys amount to legalized government harassment. Right now the Census Bureau can ask citizens very invasive questions, and if they don't respond, the government shows up at their door and threatens them with a fine. Americans are fed up with these mandatory census surveys and they're asking us to stop the harassment... As a former small business owner, I recognize that some economic data gathering is beneficial. However, it should be voluntary, industry driven, and not mandated by the government under penalty of law. I'm confident in our ability to develop innovative ways to gather information without harassing people, invading their privacy, or threatening them with fines. Americans are tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives."

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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