Low Profile, High Impact: Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf
Policy + Politics

Low Profile, High Impact: Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf

Although he's little known outside the Beltway, Elmendorf's budget analysis can be the seal of approval — or the kiss of death — for proposed legislation
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When the elevator opens onto the fourth floor of the Ford House Office Building, a half dozen blocks from the U.S. Capitol, a visitor is greeted by a wooden bookshelf displaying printed reports and little else in the bare, broad passageway. Unlike the ornate surroundings of the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, the halls of the Congressional Budget Office exude none of its power as an inner sanctum of policy pronouncements.

And CBO Director Douglas W. Elmendorf apparently likes it that way.

The lean, low-key economist eschews the media spotlight, but the public glare often seeks him out. As head of the agency created by Congress to be the official arbiter of the bottom-line budget impact of federal legislation, Elmendorf regularly finds himself in the middle of the nation’s noisiest, most partisan fights, all sides clamoring for his analysis to bolster their positions. During last year’s fierce fight to overhaul health care, for example, if Elmendorf said a package would add to the deficit, the measure was as good as dead given the mounting concern about runaway spending. The Senate spent months crafting a bill that could get a CBO score of at least deficit-neutral.

"This is a particularly intense moment," said Alice Rivlin, the nation’s first CBO director, appointed in 1975, who has held almost every prestigious economics-oriented job in Washington. "Because of the deficit situation, the cost estimates have become particularly important."

Elmendorf’s influence could become even more pronounced this year, as the White House and Congress grapple to find ways to kick-start the economy while dealing with record levels of debt. "More pain from this downturn lies ahead of us than behind us," Elmendorf predicted in a media briefing late last month as he released CBO’s most recent budget and economic outlook. Elmendorf said the nation’s fiscal situation will be "bleak" if, as many expect, President Obama and Congress agree to extend Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire. "U.S. fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path," Elmendorf said, adding that there is a "fundamental disconnect" between services citizens expect and how much they’re willing to pay for those services in taxes.

In a brief interview with The Fiscal Times, Elemendorf said the immense pressure he’s under and the power he wields come with the territory. "Making projections is always difficult," he said. "I can’t compare my situation to that of previous directors. I’m sure they all have stories of how difficult it is."

Rivlin, who knows Elmendorf and serves on a CBO advisory committee, has high praise for the bespectacled director. "He’s a thoughtful, scholarly person," Rivlin said. "This is a good job for him." Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said that while he has strongly disputed some of Elmendorf’s findings, "We have seen that he’s tried to call them straight, and that’s the best that we can ask for."

"God bless Dr. Doug Elmendorf for his integrity and his commitment to telling the truth. We need to learn how to deal with the truth, not try to remake it or cover it up," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., said in a floor speech in June.

The Poughkeepsie-born Elmendorf, who is not yet 50, is married to an economist and has long wanted to be CBO director. His first job in Washington was as an analyst at CBO. "It’s great to be back," he wrote in his inaugural post to the well-read CBO Director’s Blog, back on Jan. 26, 2009, when he took over the top job.

A Princeton undergrad, Elmendorf got his PhD at Harvard in 1989 and taught there for a few years. After his stint at CBO from 1993 to 1995, Elmendorf, a Democrat, bounced around the Washington economics circuit. He was a senior economist at both the Federal Reserve Board and the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He became the deputy assistant Treasury secretary for economic policy in 1999 and returned to the Fed in 2001, after President Bush took office. Elmendorf joined the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow in 2007 and was there when he was tapped for the CBO post.

The pace has been non-stop ever since, with mindboggling questions to an

answer: What will the economic-stimulus bill really cost? Whom will it help or hurt? What’s the federal government’s exposure to losses in the Troubled Asset Relief Program? What are the long-term budget implications of President Obama’s fiscal policies? Will legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions cost jobs or create them? And one of the most perplexing issues: Will a health care overhaul put a brake on runaway government spending?

The onslaught of requests from congressional leaders and members has kept Elmendorf and his staff hopping. The CBO employs about 230 people, mostly economists and public policy analysts. The agency completed approximately 480 federal cost estimates in 2009, as well as 420 estimates of the impact of federal legislation on state and local governments. That’s in addition to preparing congressional testimony and publishing dozens of reports. Elmendorf posted more than 160 blogs on the CBO site.

In those postings, speeches and congressional testimony, Elmendorf uses a staid tone to respond to criticism. He repeats a commitment to CBO’s role as an independent analyst as a kind of mantra, while constantly acknowledging that any projection is just that – a best guess given the facts available and the economic models at hand.

But staid doesn’t mean weak. Last July, Elmendorf was being attacked by some Democrats for presenting an analysis that contradicted administration data claiming that the health care bill would lower costs. But Elmendorf stood his ground, even when White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, a former CBO director himself, pointedly slapped CBO in his own blog, saying, "CBO seems to have overstepped."

Elmendorf’s dim view of the cost savings claims in today’s health care legislation has given each bill’s opponents ample cover to pummel away at its provisions. Throughout the political warfare, Elmendorf has managed to stay above the partisan fray and protect the Holy Grail of CBO: its independence.

Robert Waldmann, an economics professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, knew Elmendorf when he was a graduate student, sharing an office with visiting scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Washington. Tacked to the door of the office was a single-panel, Gary Larson Far Side cartoon. It shows a salesman approaching the front gate of a home, which displays a sign, "Beware of Doug," as a bug-eyed man hides behind a tree like a dog waiting to bite the mailman.

Although Elmendorf said he no longer keeps a copy of the cartoon posted on his office door, politicians may be learning to heed the warning.