Monday, March 29, 2010

A CBO Triumph?

Stan Collender posts an appreciation of CBO for its role in health care reform.  I heartily agree that CBO earned the praise.  However, Collender believes:
[I]t is absolutely certain that the Congressional Budget Office came out of the debate in a far better and more highly esteemed position than when it began.
More highly esteemed, yes.  Better?  I wish that were true, but I don't think so.  In fact, quite the contrary.   Here's what I saw: the Democrats used CBO for two reasons -- first, to get the policy to work the way they wanted it to work, and second, to convince others that it would work that way.  For the first, assuming Democrats were sincere, CBO did as far as I know a terrific job.  However, partisan staff could have done that part of it just as well.  The advantage of having a neutral CBO is for the second part, convincing others that a policy will do what the proponents claim it will do.  In this, I think it's very hard indeed to consider health care reform good news for CBO.  Republicans, more or less to a person, simply rejected CBO's conclusions about the effects of the bill on the deficit.  Yes, Collender is correct that Republicans did occasionally cite CBO numbers, but that was surely just cherry-picking details that fit the GOP story.  In the light of CBO's projections, Republicans for the most part didn't quibble -- they simply rejected them, asserting that it was simply not believable that a "government takeover of one sixth of the economy" could possibly reduce the deficit.  Period, end of story.

As far as I can tell, some neutral observers followed CBO in their understanding of reality, but quite a few others adopted a he said, she said approach that in effect treated CBO as the Democrats' side of the story, not a nonpartisan estimate.

Meanwhile, relying on CBO was not without costs for the Democrats.  Good, solid estimates take time.  At least four times during the health care marathon, things ground to a halt while CBO scored the latest version of the bill (I'm counting Baucus's chair's mark, the final amended Finance Committee version, the merged Senate bill, and the reconciliation bill this month -- I don't recall a delay while the bill was on the Senate floor for the manager's amendment, but I might be forgetting that or another).  I'd say the total CBO delay was on the order of six to ten weeks over the course of the ordeal.  Now, of course, a staff estimate would presumably have taken at just as long, so assuming the majority cares about good numbers, then maybe calling it a "CBO" delay overstates the time.  Still, I think it's safe to say that a lot of Democrats would have been glad to have been glad to trade somewhat less solid estimates for, say, eight weeks off of the process.

In other words, I would assume that CBO is only worth it to the majority party if it can help the majority convince others that their plans are fiscally responsible.  So, I wouldn't be surprised if at least some Democrats right now, especially those relatively less concerned about budget deficits, were wondering exactly what they bought for all the delays.  Again, I agree with Stan Collender that CBO performed admirably, and is really what anyone would want in a government agency.  If, that is, what they want is an honest broker.  If only one party wants that -- and I think that's the real lesson of health care as far as CBO is concerned -- then it's not at all clear to me that there's much of an incentive to continue to use it.


  1. Good take: See Samuelson in WaPo today.

  2. The CBO has been getting short shrift from Repubs for a while now. The CBO has always looked askance at the old Laffer Curve argument, and for all the defecit hawks who also want tax cuts (almost always a bigger "program" than any program in government: see Bush's 1.3T tax cut vs Obama's 940B health care bill, for example), that's doesn't fit with having their cake and eating it, too.

    The Democrats use it politically, of course, with the deficit-neutral thing. I tend to think that the GOP tends not to like them because nonpartisan analysis of their ideas isn't pretty. (But, of course, I'm kinda biased.)

  3. I heard something different from many conservatives. They were not necessarily questioning the CBO score, rather they were questioning the ability of Congress to follow through with the reforms that would allow the CBO score to come true. Or they were lumping the doc fix into the health care bill. Or some other similarly dishonest tactic. But for the most part I did not hear a lot of direct attacks on the CBO.

    Plus I think the CBO score was probably hugely useful in convincing Blue Dogs to sign on. A partisan estimate would not have done that. Its useful to think of the Blue Dogs as almost a third party, so the CBO's neutrality is important to them.

  4. Caretaker --

    I think it's correct that Republicans are not questioning the score in terms of the projections (as they did, as Matt says, with tax revenues), but if they say that the score is irrelevant...well, that gets to my point, no?

    As for marginal Democrats, I'm not really convinced that it was the CBO score, as opposed to the logic of the situation. But I do agree that if it made a difference, that's where to look for it.

  5. In terms of benefits to the CBO, it's probably a net negative, because the GOP is now more angry at the CBO. The modern GOP knows how to deal with uppity reality-based people.


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