In 2002, Republican Rep. Jim Nussle, head of the House Budget Committee, was upset about the way the Congressional Budget Office had changed its score of a farm bill. At a closed-door meeting of the GOP leadership, he left no doubt about how he felt. "The CBO sucks, and you can quote me on that," he told the group, according to Fox News.
Nussle's statement may have been unusually direct by congressional standards, but it was hardly the first or last time that the Beltway's exasperation with CBO would be on full display. The nonpartisan-by-design congressional agency — whose job is to make budget forecasts and determine how much pieces of legislation will cost — is one of the few organizations in Washington that both conservatives and liberals regularly criticize. It's a role the agency approaches with a sense of humor. Beginning with Robert Reischauer — who was CBO director when The Washington Post years ago ran an editorial calling the budget watchdog the "skunk at the annual picnic" for its tough talk on deficits — a tradition was established that has continued through a number of his successors: CBO directors get toy skunks. Dan Crippen found his in a drawer when he took over in 1999. Alongside it was a note from Rudolph Penner, who ran CBO from 1983 to 1987. "He said, 'You now have the best job in Washington,' " Crippen recalls. " 'You have only two enemies: the Democrats and the Republicans.' "
Last month, CBO once again found itself under attack, this time from Democrats, when it said that raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — which President Obama has advocated — would reduce overall employment by 500,000 in 2016. Jason Furman, the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters CBO went "outside the consensus view of economists when it comes to the impact of the minimum wage on employment."
How to convince both sides that you are a credible, neutral organization when everyone is constantly accusing you of wronging them? It's especially tough in today's hyper-partisan D.C. "I don't worry about our ability to do objective work," the current director, Douglas Elmendorf, said at a recent event hosted by The Atlantic, which, like National Journal, is part of Atlantic Media. "I spend more time worrying about the perception of our objectivity."
It turns out that CBO directors have over the years put a lot of effort into trying to address this problem. I recently spoke with six former directors and one acting director about how they navigated this terrain. (Elmendorf declined to comment.) Alice Rivlin, who was CBO's first director, in 1975, cites some seemingly small logistical details — such as making sure that Republicans and Democrats received reports at the same time — as keys to maintaining an air of objectivity. "We tried very hard to make sure that the majority and the minority had equal treatment, equal notice, equal number of copies," she recalls.
Donald Marron, who was acting director in 2006, says avoiding surprises is crucial. "If you're scoring a big bill, you want to make sure the relevant people have a sense of where you're going, even if you haven't completed the analysis yet," he explains.
Rivlin's successor, Penner, recalls "petty things, like when we would issue a report, there'd be a competition between the committees as to who would get me to testify first." Penner, who served at a time when Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House, says he tried to establish traditions to end that pettiness — for instance, alternating which chamber he would testify in first each year on crucial reports.
Not surprisingly, CBO directors can end up spending a lot of time speaking to angry members of Congress on the phone or in person. Even little-known bills "can result in an enormous amount of shouting and emotional anguish," Penner says. (He'd also get letters and death threats from the public. Death threats? "It was usually something to do with Social Security," he says.)
Crippen, who worked for a Republican senator and administration before assuming the post, recalls his discomfort when members of Congress would question his personal motives while he was running CBO. "There is no way to prove their assertions or they're wrong, because "¦ you're the only one that knows your motives," he says, noting that it's much easier to point to the numbers to defend your analysis. (He adds that accusations of personal bias "are usually made in kind of the heat of a battle, if you will, and very rarely made in public.")
Today, Elmendorf, like his predecessors, puts out a lot of information about how CBO does each forecast, giving him data to point to when his office comes under attack. He also blogs regularly on CBO.gov, a platform he recently used to clarify a controversial report on Obamacare.
Despite all the acrimony that often surrounds it, CBO is on firmer ground now than when it began. "It's really hard to imagine Congress dismantling it now. It was less hard to imagine that when Alice and I started with the whole thing," says Penner. Newt Gingrich called for CBO's demise during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, but demands to zero out the agency's budget or change its structure are rare these days.
"I didn't really know what I was getting into," Rivlin says. "I think subsequent CBO directors have had plenty of warning, and if you don't like controversy, you shouldn't take this job." She now convenes all the former CBO directors for a lunch whenever a new budget-office head takes over. "At the end of the lunch," Elmendorf recalled recently, "I did wonder whether I should go back to the office." He was warned.