Does the New CBO Director Need a Ph.D to Be Taken Seriously?
Policy + Politics

Does the New CBO Director Need a Ph.D to Be Taken Seriously?

The one thing known for certain about the next director of the Congressional Budget Office is that it won’t be Doug Elmendorf, the man who has been the chief budget referee for Congress since 2009. Republicans declined to reappoint him to a new term, inciting speculation about his replacement – speculation heightened late Wednesday by a report in The Hill naming a number of potential candidates.

Lists of possible replacements have been circulating ever since it became apparent last year that GOP leadership in the House and Senate were interested in bringing some fresh blood into the position.

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Wednesday’s report, however, claimed to confirm that a shortlist of candidates has been identified, and it named Alex Brill, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former chief economist to the House Ways and Means Committee; Warren Payne, until recently the policy director for the House Ways and Means Committee; and Jeffrey Brown, a finance professor at the University of Illinois.

While all three individual have substantial background in the worlds of economics and policymaking, Congress would break a precedent by appointing either Brill or Payne, neither of whom is a Ph.D. economist. Since it began operations in 1975 under Alice Rivlin, its first director, CBO’s appointed directors have all been Ph.D. economists.

Experts on the budget process were unwilling to be quoted directly, out of concern they might be seen as criticizing a potential new CBO head with whom they might have to work. However, they noted that the thorny economic debates at CBO, particularly the current discussion about how to implement a requirement from the House of Representatives that major bills be assessed through the controversial practice of dynamic scoring, involve corralling the opinions of many highly qualified staff economists. A doctoral degree in the subject, they argued, adds heft to a CBO director’s influence on staff.

The fact that both Brill and Payne have served as staff on the House Ways and Means Committee (Brill left as chief economist in 2007; Payne left as policy director this month) raises the question of whether their analysis of hot-button issues – such as GOP proposals to replace Obamacare, or any advisory work they might do with the Joint Committee on Taxation on the implications of a dynamically scored tax bill – might be seen as politically shaded.

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Neither, of course, would be the first to come to CBO from an arguably political post. Elmendorf served as a deputy assistant Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, for example, and one of his predecessors, Peter Orszag, served in advisory positions in the Clinton administration.

Neither Brill not Payne responded immediately to emails requesting comment for this story.

The Hill article also mentioned a number of other potential candidates, most of whose names have been mentioned by various outlets recently. Among them were Katherine Baicker, a professor of economics at Harvard; Donald Marron, a former acting CBO head who runs the Urban Institute’s Economic Policy Initiatives; and James Capretta, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at AEI.

Congressional leaders have not yet indicated when they’ll make a final decision about replacing Elmendorf, who is expected to stay on the job until a successor is in place.

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