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Despite Partisanship, Congress’ Agencies Still Stand Independent

A couple of months ago, The Washington Post published an op-ed about how to fix health care, written by Dan Crippen, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office. It was a straightforward, nonideological, sensible look at the problems we have bringing the burgeoning costs of Medicare under control — noting that while Social Security is currently dominating discussion, the real entitlement problem is Medicare.[IMGCAP(1)]

I read the piece with interest, but it made me reflect on more than the complex issues of health costs and Medicare. The Congressional Budget Office has been in existence for more than 30 years, through a sweep of political history that has included partisan warfare, changes in party control of the House and Senate, scandals and a lot of other turmoil. Few issues have been closer to the center of the maelstrom than budget-related ones. Yet from its inception to the present day, through a half-dozen directors, CBO has maintained an impeccable reputation for fairness, incisiveness, depth and quality.

Every time a new CBO director has been chosen, the job search has been caught up in stories of wrangling between the House and Senate, and between Democrats and Republicans. Every time a director has been chosen, skeptics have said that he or she would tilt CBO in a partisan direction.

But every time, the CBO director has succeeded beyond all expectation, demonstrating precisely the positive qualities one would want in this job. That is true again today with the current occupant, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served in the Bush White House but who has done nothing to bias or bend the CBO toward Bush or any member of the Republican majority. Holtz-Eakin, like his predecessors, has called ‘em as he (and his high-quality professional staff) sees ‘em.

The tone here was set by CBO’s first director, Alice Rivlin, who established the staff and ethos of CBO and built it from scratch into one of the most durable and admired institutions in Washington. Every succeeding director, from Rudy Penner to Bob Reischauer to June O’Neill to Crippen and now Holtz-Eakin — has continued that tradition, the pressure from president or Congress notwithstanding.

It didn’t have to be that way. CBO was created by a Congress upset about the imperial presidency, determined to have its own budget process with its own institutions — budget resolutions, budget committees and a counterpart to the Office of Management and Budget.

There were times when CBO could have fallen prey to partisan or ideological pressures, and there were times when the Congressional figures tasked with choosing a new CBO director could have succumbed to temptation. Nobody did.

CBO is one of the real success stories of the modern Congress. But it is not the only one. Actually, all of the support agencies set up to assist the legislative body are in that category.

Take the Congressional Research Service. CRS has long been an unrivaled source of information about Congress, the law and the world to insiders. Now nonexperts and outsiders can take advantage of the incredible research reports by accessing them online.

CRS became a major force after the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act transformed it into a vibrant research source. Prior to that, the research done by its predecessor organization, the Legislative Reference Service, was often picayune — sometimes answering questions from a sixth-grade class that had been referred over by its Member of Congress. Former Rep. Gil Gude (R-Md.), who long represented Montgomery County, became its director after he retired, and he made it a force to be reckoned with.

When I was deeply engaged in Congressional reform in the early and mid-1970s, the late, great Walter Kravitz, the successor to George Galloway, was the towering figure there — the expert on rules and all things Congress. Over the years, CRS has been a rock — on campaign finance (Joe Cantor), rules and procedures in the House and Senate (Walter Oleszek, Richard Beth, Paul Rundquist and many others), taxes (Jane Gravelle), elections, Congressional workload — you name it, the list goes on.

Most of its reports have been commissioned by individual Members of Congress and committees; they too could have been politicized and misused for partisan purposes. But under strong directors and strong Librarians of Congress, they have not and CRS has remained strong and well-regarded across the board.

Two other Congressional institutions are worth a nod of appreciation: the Government Accountability Office and the Senate Historian.

GAO is a behemoth that is far more than an arm of Congress: It is the watchdog of Congress, and it has been as reliable, thorough and alert as any watchdog could be. Like CBO and CRS, the keys are the agency’s ethos and solid leadership. GAO recruits top-flight professionals from the best schools and keeps them, many for entire careers, because its employees are proud to serve an elite organization with an important mission.

GAO, of course, has been around for a long time — since the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 — but it has benefited in modern times from strong and independent leaders. The comptroller general is confirmed by Congress and serves a single, 15-year term, guaranteeing both strength and independence. The comptrollers general I have known — Elmer Staats, Chuck Bowsher and currently, Dave Walker — are all superstars.

In the meantime, the Senate Historian, Richard Baker, and his associate, Don Ritchie, have created and built one of the premier institutions of historical study and information in the nation, one used heavily by Senators, staff, scholars, journalists, civics teachers, students and others, and an institution that reminds Senators on a daily basis of the majesty and uniqueness of their own institution. It may just make them a little less prone to trash the Senate in the name of political expediency.

In each of these agencies, strong leaders and strong internal cultures have helped them to weather a variety of partisan, ideological and other storms to emerge again and again as top-flight resources. But this is also a testament to a string of Congressional leaders who have known, ultimately, that if CBO, CRS, GAO and the others were to become identified as partisan or ideological instruments, they would soon lose their reputations for integrity, their first-rate staffs, and ultimately their purpose. If that were to happen, Congress itself would suffer. May they all continue their noble missions.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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