For the last half-century, Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have followed a simple pattern: release a White House budget plan in February, then release a document known as a "mid-session review" over the summer. One of the purposes of the updated report is to show how the economy has changed over the course of six months, and highlight the degree to which those changes affect the original budget blueprint.
It's intended to help with policymaking: the more officials can take stock of macroeconomic trends, the better positioned they'll be to make responsible budgetary decisions.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. The Washington Post reports that those looking for Trump World's latest economic projections should probably lower their expectations.
White House officials have decided not to release updated economic projections this summer, opting against publishing forecasts that would almost certainly codify an administration assessment that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a severe economic downturn, according to three people with knowledge of the decision.
How often have administrations withheld this economic data? Since the current federal budget process was adopted in the 1970s, it's never happened.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who also served as an economic adviser to the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), told the Post, in reference to White House officials, "It gets them off the hook for having to say what the economic outlook looks like."
It's likely Donald Trump's staffers will argue that economic volatility would paint a muddled picture, but the Obama administration continued to release these projections in 2009, despite the bleak picture they painted. They'll also likely argue that there's great uncertainty about the near future, which is true, but that's always true of projections.
The explanation that makes the most sense is that the Trump White House doesn't want to release awful economic projections a few months before Election Day. When data is likely to be discouraging, some believe the smart move is to hide the data.
Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Republican staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, told the Post there's "no logistical reason" preventing the administration from releasing the projections. He added, "It seems more likely they do not want to bring attention to the high level of unemployment they'd have to project for this year, and into next year."
There's also a larger pattern to consider. In fact, if this gambit sounds vaguely familiar to regular readers, it's probably because the Bush/Cheney administration developed a reputation for pulling a similar trick.
In 2005, for example, after a government report showed an increase in terrorism around the world, the administration stopped publishing annual data on international terrorism. When the Bush administration was discouraged by data about factory closings, the administration announced (on Christmas Eve) it would stop publishing information about factory closings. When Bush's Department of Education found that charter schools were underperforming, the administration sharply cut back on the information it collected about charter schools.
In 2016, when then-Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) radical tax-cut experiment failed, the Kansas Republican decided to stop publishing quarterly reports on the status of the state's economy.
Team Trump's approach is discouraging, but it has a partisan pedigree.
Update: A senior administration official said in a statement that it would be “foolish” to publish forecasting data when it “may mislead the public.” Isn't this the same White House that recently published COVID-19 forecasting data that wildly misled the public?