At a time when the standard reply to any disagreement in Washington is to declare an opponent’s claims “fake” and, rather than engage them on the level of ideas, to immediately attack their personal integrity, resistance seems to be building to at least one attempt to drag policy disagreements into the mud.
Since its establishment in the 1970s, the Congressional Budget Office has been viewed as an impartial arbiter of the costs and impacts of proposed federal legislation. The agency has aggravated Republicans and Democrats alike over the years, regardless of the political affiliation of the agency’s director at the time.
And while there have often been robust challenges to the CBO’s findings -- the Obama administration, for example, argued vehemently against the agency’s analysis of the effects of a minimum wage hike -- the disagreements typically stayed within the realm of policy.
Under the Trump administration, though, that has changed significantly. The CBO’s analyses of various Republican proposals to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act have been sharply criticized by administration officials, who have implied that the agency is biased against the GOP’s plans. White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney at one point even pointed to a specific CBO staff member, questioning whether she could be trusted to produce an honest analysis.
Republican lawmakers and members of the Trump administration have also discussed the possibility of doing away with CBO review of legislation altogether. There were efforts to send certain proposals for ACA repeal to the Department of Health and Human Services for budget scoring -- something HHS does not normally do.
Another lawmaker proposed slashing the CBO budget and changing its mandate to serve simply as a clearing house that would aggregate economic analysis done by think tanks and other outside operations.
Policy experts, it seems, have finally had enough.
“This is all ridiculous,” writes Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In his Bloomberg View column, Strain blasts the effort to delegitimize CBO for being wrong-headed not only on questions of policy, when the attacks come from lawmakers themselves, but also for undermining Congress’s authority.
“Delegitimizing the CBO also puts more power in the hands of the White House and executive departments,” he writes. “CBO analysis and information is produced at the request of Congress, for use by Congress. A discredited CBO would lead Congress to rely on the executive branch for information and analysis of legislation. CBO was created as part of a broader battle over the balance of power between Congress and President Richard Nixon. Congress shouldn’t tilt that balance more toward the president.”
It is also, he said, a sign of a troubling broader trend in American popular discourse.
“Attacks on the CBO are additionally concerning because they are part of a growing hostility towards expertise,” he added. “From vaccines to the benefits of free trade to the safety of genetically modified food, expert opinion seems not to matter as much as it should. Conservatives should not contribute to this problem by discrediting the public-policy expertise offered by the CBO.”
Writing in The Hill on Thursday, Gabriel Ehrlich and Ryan Nunn join the chorus defending the congressional budget watchdog. Specifically, they object to the idea of eliminating the agency’s Budget Analysis Division and replacing it with the aggregation of think tank data, which was proposed by Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who serves as chair of the influential House Freedom Caucus.
Ehrlich is director of the University of Michigan’s Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics and a former CBO analyst, while Nunn is policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project.
“Evaluating complex legislative proposals and projecting their costs is meticulous, unglamorous work that no think tank has the resources or the motivation to perform comprehensively,” they note.
“To be sure, many think tanks produce high-quality analyses of policy ideas, and that analysis is an important part of our policy discussion. But CBO is different in that it does not make policy recommendations and maintains strict neutrality. Without a single, impartial arbiter to score the budgetary implications of policy options, there is likely to be substantial confusion about these implications. Individual policymakers would have strong incentives to cherry-pick forecasts that portray their proposals in the most positive light.”
Eliminating that function, they conclude, “would deal a serious blow to nonpartisan, evidence-based public policy.”