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CBO critics abound—but their efforts flounder

The Congressional Budget Office—a lightning rod for criticism from both parties over the years—has in recent months again come under intense fire.

The Congressional Budget Office—a lightning rod for criticism from both parties over the years—has in recent months again come under intense fire.

The office, created in 1974—and part of Congress rather than the more abundant executive branch agencies—is responsible for providing Congress with budget and economic information. Specifically, CBO is chartered to provide nonpartisan independent analysis to aid in the congressional lawmaking process. CBO has a staff of approximately 230 economists, budget analysts and other professionals.

In the last decade, the CBO ran into controversy as its estimates were highly publicized in the lead-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act—“Obamacare”—in 2010. Critics complained, attacking CBO and focusing on parts of the office’s estimates that had been inaccurate. 

More recently, CBO produced dire forecasts if the ACA were done away with, as the White House and its political allies on Capitol Hill proposed in several recent bills. For example, the CBO estimated that tens of millions of people faced loss of their health insurance if the “repeal and replace” ACA replacement bill had passed, and similar human costs if the “repeal-only” anti-ACA bill succeeded. In turn, however, proponents of these recent legislative efforts cried foul, saying CBO’s estimates of a future without the ACA were far too negative. 

Armed with this complaint and other criticisms of CBO, lawmakers in July attempted to use the “Holman Rule”—a legal but long-unused legislative mechanism that permits Congress to reduce the number of federal workers at specific agencies by cutting or eliminating their salaries as a provision of an amendment to an appropriations bill.

House Republicans opposed to the ACA tried to target the defunding of 89 specific, named CBO staff, by way of a Holman Rule amendment. That amendment failed, but its backers have vowed to fight on.

Richard G. Frank, a Harvard University health economist, is pushing back against efforts to discredit and weaken the CBO. From 2014 to 2016, in the early implementation of the ACA’s health insurance plans, Frank served under President Obama as the assistant secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Everybody who is in the forecasting business is wrong,” Frank told FEND. “But, it turns out that CBO is less wrong, over time, than anybody else—they really are consistently less wrong. The numbers they provide are better than anyone else’s, and are crucial to Congress’s work.” 

A group of House Democrats who pushed back against the legislation also immediately issued a joint statement defending CBO—and excoriating the lawmakers who tried to use the Holman Rule to cripple it. The statement was signed by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Anthony Brown (D-Md.), and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

“This is a foolish and unprecedented Republican attack on nonpartisan federal employees in order to pass a bill that would strip healthcare for millions of Americans,” the group wrote of the amendment. “Republicans are losing the game, so now they are trying to fire the refs.”

“This is exactly what we worried about when Republicans reinstated this arcane rule in January. The Holman Rule empowers members of Congress to target individual federal employees,” they continued. “The rule is being used to punish an important advisory body for doing its job by providing forecasts which some members now find inconvenient. This is part of a strategic assault on objectivity and expertise in the civil service. Partisan talking points cannot replace unbiased analysis. Nowhere is this more true than in our budget process.”

Experts defend CBO, predict its survival

Frank, along with many other experts, has taken to penning op-ed pieces, defending the CBOs methods—and vouching for the office’s nonpartisan aims and work product. He emphasizes that “the office has unique data resources—and specifically unique data resources for analyzing legislation.”

Regarding these “unique data resources,” Frank explained to FEND that the Treasury Department has strong data on taxes, and so can provide good estimates on that front, while Health and Human Services has strong data on health care and health insurance. “But, by law, the only agency that can get individual-level health and tax data, and put it all together, is CBO—nobody else can put it all together,” Frank told FEND. “This makes CBO uniquely positioned to do the best forecasting.”

“If CBO is [done away with or cut] it would weaken policymaking and Congress’s abilities tremendously,” Frank told FEND. “It is the best source of even-handed analysis on specific legislation that there is.”

Philip Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland—and author of The Congressional Budget Office:  Honest Numbers, Power, and Policymaking, agrees. 

“There is a long history of people complaining they don’t like the answers they get from the CBO,” Joyce told FEND.

“But I think this has risen to a new level recently, in the sense that there have not been such efforts in the past to take this out on the agency, budgetarily,” Joyce said. “It’s true that long ago, under the Reagan administration the White House tried to get Senate Republicans to remove the CBO director—but in a bipartisan response Senate leaders said we’re not going to do that, they’re doing a fine job.”

“My point is that periodically—and especially when there are high-profile issues that CBO opines on—you find that one or the other party or President tries to take it out on the office,” Joyce told FEND. “But, again, recent months are the first time I recall that opponents of the office are making a real try to reduce its budget.” 

“First, they tried to impugn the agency’s reputation,” Joyce told FEND. “Next, when that wasn’t working, they moved on to maybe hoping to get rid of the agency itself—starting with abolishing the specific part of the agency that does the cost estimates.”

“In fact, they have this crazy [new] idea, to get the numbers that they want, that the director of the CBO should just take a bunch of estimates from various think tanks and add them up, and divide by ‘x’ to get a good average,” Joyce said. “But this won’t work, because the think tanks have donors—and some would skew the numbers—you won’t get more accurate information.”

“CBO tries to be accurate, but even when that’s not possible they are a source of objective and unbiased information—and that is what is under attack,” Joyce told FEND.

Joyce pointed out that not only did CBO run into criticism throughout its existence—as he mentioned, during the Republican Reagan administration, but also from the Democratic Carter administration, when the office pushed back against its energy policy cost savings estimates. And that the CBO has ruffled feathers in administrations of both parties ever since—yet no serious effort to undermine the institution itself has ever gained momentum, until recently.

“It would be a terribly short-sighted thing for Congress to do, to cut or really hurt CBO,” Joyce told FEND. “Say, if Trump is not re-elected in 2020, the Republicans in congress will want to have CBO to provide clear-eyed forecasts when they are out.”

“In fact, that’s why these efforts have failed so far—both sides want CBO,” Joyce said. “I mean, in making sure these amendments failed, we finally found something that the chair and the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee could agree on—they both have said, hey, we don’t think this is a good idea,” he said.

“I think there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle in Congress, who are very protective of our institutions,” Harvard’s Frank told FEND.

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