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A fact-checker's nightmare: Shutdown shutters Census, BLS, other sites

By Louis Jacobson
Published on Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013 at 10:32 a.m.

The federal government shutdown that began on Oct. 1, 2013, has affected many lives, from furloughed federal employees to tourists barred from visiting federally owned attractions.

You can add to that list people -- like fact-checkers -- who want to locate statistics and information compiled by federal agencies.

Here at PolitiFact, we spend countless hours a day scrutinizing federal websites to find just the right statistic to support -- or debunk -- claims made by politicians and pundits. So we couldn’t help but notice that with the advent of the first federal shutdown in 18 years, government websites operated for the benefit of the general public took a hit.

Some statistical websites went dark, others stopped being updated, and still others lost functionality.

Similar website vanishing acts also happened in 1995, but back then, the World Wide Web was in its infancy. Now, more statistics than ever are exclusively available on the Internet, and fewer are published on paper.

As of late afternoon on the first day of shutdown, we found most of the federal websites we interact with had prominent warnings about the status of their data.

First, here are some of our favorite statistical websites that are entirely out of commission:

U.S. Census Bureau. This is a big one, affecting countless data sets on population, income and demographics. The site is totally closed, with a message saying that public web browsing "will be unavailable until further notice."

Bureau of Economic Analysis. This office within the Commerce Department hosts an indispensable, interactive site that provides official data on gross domestic product, income and other economic statistics.

The Agriculture Department. You can forget about looking into the monthly changes in food stamp usage. "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available," the site says. "After funding has been restored, please allow some time for this website to become available again."

The Institute for Education Sciences. The Education Department’s hub of K-12 and higher-education statistics is inaccessible.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Current weather data and forecasts remain available at weather.gov, but forget about accessing historical data. Due to the shutdown, the site says, "only web sites necessary to protect lives and property will be maintained."

Meanwhile, other major statistical websites are still operating, but aren’t being updated with current data, and may not be fixed if they suffer a glitch during the shutdown.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our beloved source of employment and wage data, housed at the Labor Department, remains live, but it won’t be updated, even though a new jobs report is due Friday. "During the shutdown period, BLS will not collect data, issue reports, or respond to public inquiries," the site says.

The White House and the Office of Management and Budget. It’s unclear how much public disclosure of new presidential statements, documents and transcripts there will be during the shutdown. "Due to Congress’s failure to pass legislation to fund the government, the information on this web site may not be up to date," the site says.

General Accountability Office. Old reports by Congress’ investigative arm appear to be accessible, but new ones won’t be posted.

Internal Revenue Service. Tax collection can continue even during a shutdown, and the IRS website remains operational, including a deep trove of historical data on income and revenue. However, the agency notes that "some interactive features may not be available" during the shutdown.

• Energy Information Agency. The premier website for energy statistics, run by the Energy Department, "will be accessible but may not be updated until Congress approves funds for Fiscal Year 2014."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s collection of public health, mortality and injury statistics appears to functional for now, but many of the agency’s sites won’t be updated during the shutdown.

Department of Homeland Security. The DHS site, which includes data on immigration, "will not be actively managed" during the shutdown.

One key website was down initially, then went back up:

THOMAS. The primary website for tracking the substance and progress of congressional bills, run by the Library of Congress, couldn't be accessed mid-afternoon, but then went live again. (If it goes down again, how will anyone be able to track what’s in the spending bills fruitlessly shuttled between the House and Senate?)

Finally, there are a handful of websites that, as of publication time, did not appear to be experiencing problems. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, most of them have a connection with Congress, the branch that many blame for instigating the shutdown.

Clerk of the House of Representatives. Source of roll call votes in the House.

Secretary of the Senate. Source of roll call votes in the Senate.

Congressional Budget Office. The website of the independent number-crunching arm of Congress.

Congressional Record. The Government Printing Office’s site for the daily publication that lists all activity and speeches in Congress.

Federal Election Commission. The website of the independent, executive branch agency that collects campaign-finance disclosure data shows no sign of any shutdown-related issues.

Healthcare.gov. As the administration promised, the portal to the Obamacare health insurance marketplace opened on time, though not without some first-day glitches.

That’s the report for now. We’ll see how long these remain live.

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