New Assault on CBO’s Numbers and Transparency
Policy + Politics

New Assault on CBO’s Numbers and Transparency

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The Congressional Budget Office has long been a target of disgruntled lawmakers and politicians whenever the congressional scorekeepers’ long term calculations and projections have undercut their legislative ambitions.

The criticism was renewed on Tuesday when super tax lobbyist Grover Norquist and former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt took aim at CBO as well as the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation for what they deemed flawed or inaccurate budget and tax projections and a lack of transparency on how they reach their conclusions.

“Right now, joint tax and CBO do their projections in a black box,” said Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading opponent of any tax increases. “You say, ‘Well what about this?’ They come back and give you a number, and you say, ‘How’d you get the number?’ And they say, ‘Secret! We won’t tell you.’” Gephardt, the former veteran Missouri politician, said, “I really do think there’s got to be some latitude in the Congress on using their estimates as gospel.”

Lawmakers have a history of clashing with the CBO dating back to the early 1990s, when under the direction of Robert Reischauer the agency dealt a series of setbacks to Bill Clinton’s proposed health care reforms, estimating that the package would cost more than the White House had estimated and recommending that it be classified as a new government spending program rather than a private insurance plan.

"If you blame the scoreboard for the fact that your team’s losing that’s ridiculous."

These latest digs at congressional scorekeepers underscore an ongoing debate about the means both bodies use to derive budgetary and revenue projections.  They use “static scoring” which factors in how the economy would behave under current law rather than the behavioral changes the proposed legislation might prompt in the economy.   But for more than 30 years, Republican lawmakers and administrations have urged CBO and JCT to use more “dynamic” estimates.

“This is not secret sauce stuff—this is problematic,” said Norquist.  CBO officials dispute the argument that they lack transparency, pointing to the background papers and research literature the agency releases with each of its cost estimates.  “The agency works hard to explain the basis for its findings so that Members of Congress, their staff, and outside analysts can understand the results and question the methodologies used,” according to a statement from CBO.

Former CBO director Doug Holtz-Eakin said on Wednesday that it’s unfair to pin Congressional inaction on spending and tax legislation on the agency. “CBO constrains Congress only by the fact that, often, they expose that Congress is doing things that are so budgetarily derelict that they are embarrassed,” Holtz-Eakin told The Fiscal Times.  He said he thinks the agency is “very clear” in explaining how it arrives at its estimates, with its methodology vetted by Congressional panels with each new estimate.

“If you blame the scoreboard for the fact that your team’s losing that’s ridiculous,” he said. “In the end, the president and the Congress are the ones who raise the taxes and do the spending. We have enormous current deficits, large debt, and we do not have any action in this administration or Congress to fix it. That's our problem--not the CBO.”

While CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation were created to provide Congress with nonpartisan professional advice on the likely impact of proposed spending and tax measures, Gephardt said that over the years the two agencies have served, in some ways, as “real drawbacks” to coping with major tax and spending challenges /node/54227.

Neither CBO nor JCT has the legal authority to pass legislation.  However, their analyses often help determine whether a bill lives or dies. Both Gephardt and Norquist questioned the CBO’s track record for accuracy. For example, they said that the CBO was way off in a projection  of the long term cost  of Medicare under  President Obama’s health care reform package.