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NJ Daily / POLITICAL PROFILE

Elmendorf: The Academic Above the Partisan Fray

Elmendorf: Ready to play “umpire” for debt panel?(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

photo of Nancy Cook
November 7, 2011

If you are a C-SPAN junkie, you probably recognize Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office.

He’s become something of a star witness this fall, testifying at two of the four hearings held by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. In public, Elmendorf responds to members’ questions in a chipper tone: upbeat, friendly--a demeanor that Capitol Hill colleagues and friends say does not change behind closed doors. His appearance is equally low-key; he is the anti-Peter Orszag, deflecting the spotlight as much as possible and preferring instead to speak through CBO’s published reports.

But regardless of the myriad ways that Elmendorf tries to keep offstage, he will be thrust into the spotlight in the coming weeks. By Nov. 23, the 12 members of the super committee need to submit their proposal to the CBO so it can measure the draft legislation’s impact.

 

It’s a weighty task given the Capitol’s partisan gridlock and it will put Elmendorf, an economist by training and a former Harvard professor, at dead center in the coming year’s budget battles. If the nonpartisan CBO calls a foul on the super committee’s package, as it did on health care reform legislation under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it could kill the super committee’s plans, or at least shift the trajectory of the debate.

“Doug’s No. 1 job is to tell Congress and the public the truth about the options we face and the size of the challenges,” says Donald Marron, director of the Tax Policy Center and a former acting CBO director himself.

Elmendorf, 49, has the personality of an academic. After earning his Ph.D. at Harvard University, he remained on the faculty and did research under Martin Feldstein, an economist whose idea of capping deductions on tax expenditures is gaining attention from some super committee members.

Elmendorf was always interested in economic policy, as opposed to fancy new models or theories. And he was a good teacher, Feldstein remembers: “You can see that nowadays in his role as congressional witness. He’s able to explain things to a non-technical audience really well.”

After Harvard, Elmendorf did what amounted to a tour of duty through the D.C. economist civil service world, working for the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. He and his wife had twin daughters, now juniors in high school. Elmendorf wrote academic papers on everything from Social Security reform to property taxes in Massachusetts, co-authoring reports with both Democrats and Republicans.

In 1994, Robert Reischauer ran the CBO, where Elmendorf worked as an economist. That year, Reischauer testified before a packed House Ways and Means Committee hearing that President Clinton’s health care plan would add roughly $74 billion to the federal deficit over a six-year period--a blow to the White House, which had predicted the plan would lower the deficit by $58 billion. The newspaper headlines the next day wrote the obituary. Elmendorf was one of the bylined authors of that CBO report.

Later, after he was appointed CBO director in January 2009, the health care debate ushered the agency back into the spotlight. Elmendorf offered a skeptical take on President Obama’s health care plan and its ability to hold down costs. His analysis prompted uproar among Democrats on Capitol Hill, while Republicans only viewed it as more ammunition in their war against “Obamacare.”

At the time, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told The Hill: “The way CBO scores some things sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Jon Gabel, a senior fellow at the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, also criticized the assumptions CBO made in calculating changes to Medicare, in a Aug. 2009 New York Times op-ed.

David Bowen, a former staff director of the Senate HELP Committee, defends the CBO’s health care estimates from that time period. “It’s fair to say their input enabled Congress to change the trajectory of the debate,” he says. “The CBO are the umpires. People may argue their calls, but they certainly provide the consequences of doing certain things.”

For the members of the super committee, this may come as a warning: Elmendorf is as aware of the pressures on the CBO as anyone, and he won’t let the agency’s scoring of the panel’s proposal become a political football.  
Nor does the agency work well if it receives scattered proposals, says Bowen, who worked very closely with CBO economists throughout 2009. The process of scoring legislation is an exacting process, in which members and staffers cannot endlessly tinker, Bowen says. Tweaking one variable can change the whole bottom line—a fact which could influence the complexity and scope of the package that the super committee can ultimately offer this close to the deadline.

These constraints could impose more discipline on the super committee—which, Bowen warns, means lots of late nights ahead for the CBO and committee staffers.

 

This article appears in the November 8, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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