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GOP’s Pre-emptive CBO Strike

Republicans Slam Democrats for Politicizing Report

House Budget Committee Republicans are making a pre-emptive strike at a forthcoming Congressional Budget Office report that they fear will be used by the chamber’s Democrats and the Kerry campaign to criticize the White House.

The CBO, whose work sparked similar partisan squabbling in August, does not discuss what reports or requests it is working on until the findings are ready to be released. But Republicans say they expect the nonpartisan agency to issue a report this week based on a request by House Democrats to recalculate the projected deficits from President Bush’s fiscal 2005 budget.

On Monday, Budget Chairman Jim Nussle’s (R-Iowa) top panel aide, Rich Meade, sent a memo to committee Republicans warning that the report “will be immediately used solely for political purposes” by Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) White House campaign.

“The majority or minority staff can easily calculate these deficit projections on their own using CBO’s data provided to us,” Meade wrote. “However, I suspect the reason the CBO is being asked to do the math is to lend the all-important seal of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to their partisan calculations.”

Budget Democrats strongly disputed the notion that their request was politically motivated.

“All we’re asking for is a realistic portrayal of what our fiscal outlook looks like,” said Budget ranking member John Spratt (D-S.C.), who made the CBO request. “It is routine. There is nothing political about it. It is basic budget work.”

Spratt said he had asked CBO to adjust the calculations it did in March on Bush’s budget using three assumptions: that the tax cuts currently scheduled to expire will be made permanent; that Iraq war costs will go down each year rather than continue at this year’s level; and that the Alternative Minimum Tax will be “corrected,” or indexed to inflation.

Republicans argue that Spratt’s staff could have factored in those assumptions and run its own numbers without using the CBO’s resources.

“They have this information,” said Nussle spokesman Sean Spicer. “This is a waste of staff time for political campaign purposes.”

Spratt, however, said that such matters fell within the CBO’s purview and that the agency could provide a far more accurate projection.

“We could do it ourselves but these CBO forecasts have assumptions built into them sometimes that we don’t understand when we do it ourselves,” he said.

Spratt added that he has had no discussions whatsoever with the Kerry campaign about the request and that it had nothing to do with presidential politics.

While the verdict won’t be clear until the CBO issues the results, recent history suggests Republicans have good reason to fear such a report.

In mid-August, the CBO released a report at Democrats’ request that portrayed Bush’s tax cuts as being skewed toward the wealthy. Congressional Democrats and the Kerry campaign seized on the results as evidence of Bush’s economic policy failings

The report angered Republicans, not necessarily because of its conclusions — which included evidence that individuals in several different tax brackets benefitted from the cuts — but because they were unaware it was coming and were initially unprepared to respond when Democrats immediately incorporated its findings into their talking points.

Unlike when the August report was released, Republicans hope that this time they will be able to pre-empt or at least shape the publicity the new document will receive.

“Shame on the reporter who bites at this report as a news story,” Meade wrote. “This is not news — it is rote arithmetic.”

The Republicans’ complaints then echo the ones they are making now about the forthcoming CBO report, though Democrats point out that the GPO made similar requests of the CBO when President Bill Clinton was in office.

On a similar note, Democrats were angered in March when the Treasury Department released an analysis of Kerry’s tax proposals that had been requested by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Democrats alleged that it was improper for civil servants to conduct work for such partisan purposes.