Why It Sucks to Be CBO

The congressional number cruncher is a favorite target of both the Left and the Right.

National Journal
Catherine Hollander
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Catherine Hollander
April 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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