Why Budget Experts Are Worried About the Next CBO Chief
Policy + Politics

Why Budget Experts Are Worried About the Next CBO Chief

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf’s four-year term at the helm of his agency will expire in January, raising the possibility that a new Republican Congress will decide to replace him, naming someone else to provide Congress with analysis of the fiscal effects of legislative proposals. While the identity of the CBO director may seem like an insignificant detail to most Americans, the prospect of a change at the top of the agency is causing a lot of heartburn among the community of budget specialists in Washington.

The worry is that, in an increasingly partisan Washington, Republicans might appoint an ideologue rather than someone who can be relied on to deliver objective analysis. The concern was voiced most prominently by former CBO Director Peter Orszag in an article published by Bloomberg Tuesday, in which he warned that a “party hack” would ruin the agency.

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While Orszag, who himself left the CBO to become President Obama’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, may appear to some to be motivated by partisan concerns of his own, conversations with multiple budget specialists in Washington in recent days suggest the worry is actually widespread.

“There’s a lot of concern,” said Stan Collender, a former House and Senate Budget Committee staffer who is now executive vice president and national director of financial communications for public affairs firm Qorvis MSLGROUP. Collender said in speaking to colleagues recently about the Republican takeover of Congress, “The discussion almost invariably went to ‘What does it mean to CBO?’”

“I think there is a lot of nervousness. Doug [Elmendorf] has been an excellent CBO director, in a long line of CBO directors,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “This is an incredibly important and respected institution. If you break an institution like that it cannot be repaired.”

Incoming Senate Budget Committee Chair Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said Wednesday that the issue of a new CBO director would be taken up in January. “I like Director Elmendorf and I have a lot of respect for him, but obviously I think his tenure is up in January, so it will be something that will need to be discussed,” he said.

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The concern has been heightened by press reports naming potential successors to Elmendorf. Both The Wall Street Journal and the Capitol Hill news service CQ Roll Call have published lists of possible candidates, some from academia, some from the government and, some associated with advocacy groups or think tanks with strongly partisan reputations.

It’s the latter that has the budget community particularly concerned.

“Some names [are] of people who are highly qualified,” said Paul N. Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and an 18-year veteran of CBO. But others, he said, “lack academic credentials.”

Van de Water said that fretting about the identity of a new CBO director isn’t always justified.

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“I worked at CBO for every director from [founding Director] Alice Rivlin through Dan Crippen, and all of those people, whether they were appointed by Republicans or Democrats, wound up dissatisfying both sides of the aisle from time to time.

“Maybe the concern this time will turn out to have been misplaced,” he said. “But it is always better to be concerned — and to remind Congress of the importance of having a strong CBO.”

MacGuineas, of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, agreed that people named to the CBO post have all been able to “rise to the occasion.”

This is in part, she said, a factor of the informal club made up of former CBO directors. It is a small and relatively close-knit group, all of its members bound by the common experience of enduring the fury of lawmakers and presidents unhappy with their findings.

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For example, on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, former CBO Director June O’Neill joined a panel discussion with a group that included her immediate predecessor, former Director Robert Reischauer. During the discussion, O’Neill produced a small stuffed animal — a skunk — that Reischauer had given her when she took over in 1995. The point of the gift was to remind O’Neill that it was the CBO director’s job to be “the skunk at the garden party.”

If Elmendorf is replaced, MacGuineas predicted, the former directors are likely to be a significant influence on his successor. “I have seen the community of former CBO directors embrace the new directors,” she said, in an effort to maintain the agency’s continuity and reputation.

And that’s no small thing, she said.

“I wouldn’t want Alice Rivlin looking over my shoulder and thinking I broke this incredible thing she built,” MacGuineas said.

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