Issa Urges Halt to Labor Department Data Policy Changes

A U.S. Labor Department plan to bar news organizations from using their own equipment and phone lines to distribute government economic data is “wrongheaded” and President Barack Obama should intervene if necessary to scrap the idea, Representative Darrell Issa said.

Issa, a California Republican, issued the statement last night on the eve of today’s hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he heads.

“The Department of Labor needs to reverse course on this wrongheaded policy change,” Issa said. “And if they fail to do so, the White House must intervene.”

Bloomberg News and other media organizations have opposed changes in the Labor Department procedures. The groups are in talks with the department about the policy, and a representative of Bloomberg News will testify at today’s hearing.

The policy, which was devised to improve data security, would change a longstanding practice that lets news organizations use their own computers, phone and data lines to file and transmit stories about unemployment figures and consumer prices from so-called lock-ups at the Labor Department.

Journalists are provided the data on an embargoed basis to give them time to write and edit stories from the lock-up room at the department. When the data are released, a Labor Department official flips a switch to let news organizations transmit. The agency has ordered them to remove software, hardware and communications lines they have installed at the department. Under the new procedures, reporters would be required to use government computer equipment, software and Internet connections.

Enormous Benefit

“The public has benefited enormously from the process the department currently uses,” Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, wrote May 8 in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. “The practice used to this point ensures the simultaneous release of information while also providing time that enables reporters to place the new data in meaningful context.”

Requiring all journalists to use government-provided software, hardware and dedicated lines would inhibit journalistic independence, and, “as the government grows more concerned about cybersecurity, the proposed policy would create a single point of failure,” according to the letter.

The initiative’s members include the American Society of News Editors, the Online News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Media Coverage

The Labor Department has said the changes would protect the security of market-moving data before it is released to the public. At the time the policy was announced, Labor Department spokesman Carl A. Fillichio cited “violations of the embargo and the use of equipment in the lockups” as a rationale for the changes. He is scheduled to testify today along with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ acting head.

Maine Senator Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked the Labor Department last month to investigate what she termed unusual trading activity before the agency released its report on employment in April.

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