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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
FOLLOWED CLOSED DOOR MEETING
Peña Nieto, Trump Trade Subtle Jabs in Statements
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Following their meeting, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, briefly addressed the media, with Peña Nieto subtly rebuking Trump's rhetoric. While he spoke respectfully about Trump, Peña Nieto did not back down, saying that free trade has proved effective and that illegal immigration into America from the south has decreased over the last ten years while the flow of people and drugs into Mexico has increased. Additionally, he stressed that Mexicans in America are "honest" and "deserve respect." Trump responded, calling some Mexicans "tremendous people" while saying others are "beyond reproach." Trump laid out five important issues, including the end of illegal immigration and the ability for either country to build a wall or border. However, Trump said he did not discuss who would pay for the wall.

LOWER COURT RULING STANDS
SCOTUS Won’t Restore NC Voter ID Law
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

A divided Supreme Court "refused Wednesday to reinstate North Carolina’s voter identification requirement and keep just 10 days of early in-person voting. The court rejected a request by Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials to delay a lower court ruling that found the state law was tainted by racial discrimination."

Source:
SMOKIN’ AND SHOOTIN’
Court: 2nd Amendment Doesn’t Protect Pot Users’ Gun Rights
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS
CHICAGO DISTRICT
Woman Self-Immolates in Congressman’s Office
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Police say a woman walked into U.S. Rep. Danny Davis' office on Chicago's West Side, drank out of a bottle of hand sanitizer, poured the sanitizer over herself and set herself on fire with a lighter." The Democrat wasn't in the office at the time.

Source:
ASKS CONGRESS FOR $1.1 BILLION MORE
White House Grants $53 Million for Opioids
6 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday awarded 44 states, four tribes and the District of Columbia a combined $53 million in grants to expand access to treatment for opioid use disorders and ultimately aimed at reducing the number of opioid-related deaths." But HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell and drug czar Michael Botticelli both called on Congress to approve the $1.1 billion Obama has requested to fight the opioid crisis.

Source:
×