May 29, 2017

In Defense of the Congressional Budget Office

In recent days, there have been questions raised about the credibility of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This is likely a pre-emptive rebuttal in case CBO produces politically problematic estimates of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) -- the House GOP proposal for replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). There is no reason, however, to doubt that CBO will apply its usual and critically important “objective, impartial, and nonpartisan” analytical standard in arriving at its AHCA estimates.

This is hardly the first time the budget office has been questioned by policymakers with political agendas. Democrats criticized it during the original debate over the ACA for underestimating the degree to which their proposals could control costs. Republicans similarly criticized CBO in the early 2000s for refuting their claims that tax cuts would spur sufficient economic growth to make them self-financing.

The CBO’s role, admirably maintained over several decades, is not to take sides but to provide all parties, including the public and the media, with objective analysis of proposed legislation. Its methodologies and assumptions are fully transparent and thoroughly reviewed for analytical rigor. Without CBO’s work as the agreed-upon non-partisan source of budgetary projections, policymakers would be flying blind or worse, encouraged to “shop around” for the most favorable score. That would only increase the highly partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill.

There should only be one official scorekeeper -- and CBO is it.

It goes without saying that its projections are uncertain. All such projections are uncertain, no matter who does them. There are simply far too many economic variables to take into consideration when scoring major legislation to demand a precise “prediction” of the future. Despite this, the CBO has a well-earned reputation for nonpartisan credibility over its 42-year history. Its original analysis of the ACA, while not perfect, proved more accurate than comparable estimates by other nonpartisan analysts and market forecasters, as well as many predictions by political policymakers.

CBO’s independence and analytical rigor have not changed under Director Keith Hall, who was nominated with high praise by Tom Price, then the House Budget Committee chairman. As the debates over health care, tax reform, and other major budget issues unfold in the coming weeks, it is critical that all sides respect the independence of CBO and work off the same set of facts.