CBO Remains Essential to Responsible Budget Decisions

Policy Memo
Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is responsible for providing Congress and the American public with objective, detailed and non-partisan analysis of current fiscal trends and proposed legislation.

Given the difficulties of that assignment and the stakes that are often involved for elected officials, the CBO inevitably faces some political potshots and second-guessing. Over the years some of that has come from Democrats and some from Republicans.

But Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget chief, has recently taken criticism of the CBO to an entirely new and quite troubling level, particularly for a top executive branch official.

Mulvaney, unhappy with the CBO’s projections for House Republicans’ health care legislation, called that analysis “absurd” and speculated -- without offering any credible evidence -- that the CBO had been infected with partisan bias.

“At some point,” Mulvaney said in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, “you’ve got to ask yourself, Has the day of the CBO come and gone?”

No, it has not.

Mulvaney later apologized for targeting an individual CBO analyst in that interview, but he stood by his general critique of the budget office and essentially rebuked its director, Keith Hall.

As The Concord Coalition has argued in the past, however, the CBO has built a long and commendable record of responsible, non-partisan analysis. Its work compares well to the work of other organizations, analysts and policy-makers.

That record has continued under Hall, who had served in the George W. Bush administration and was selected to run CBO by Republican congressional leaders in 2015.

It would be foolish to expect perfection in fiscal and economic projections because so many variables are involved. But the CBO is transparent and frequently explains in detail how it analyzes certain issues. It is also quick to acknowledge and discuss the many uncertainties that are involved in its projections.

This helps explain why former CBO directors from both parties objected so strenuously to Mulvaney’s attack on the budget office.

Alice Rivlin, CBO’s founding director who later served in the Clinton administration and as vice-chair of the Federal Reserve, said Mulvaney had simply damaged his own credibility.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former CBO director who advised Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Mulvaney’s remarks were “a disgrace, reflect more poorly on him than CBO, and show budget ignorance.”

Mulvaney’s proposals for a budget process without the CBO are also astonishing. He suggests that members of Congress, rather than relying on their own organization dedicated to objective analysis, could pick and choose from among the fiscal estimates made by his own office in the executive branch as well as various organizations “that would come with their natural biases.”

That would be a recipe for confusion, misinformation and even worse partisan bickering and breakdowns of the annual budget process. The need for the Congressional Budget Office to remain as an impartial umpire on Capitol Hill should be obvious.