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Newt Gingrich Wants to Kill the CBO Messenger

Former Speaker and current GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich might well have said that he wants to kill his personal physician because he didn’t like being told his blood pressure was too high.

But that’s the equivalent of what Gingrich did say during a recent debate, when he made it clear that the Congressional Budget Office has to be eliminated if health care reform is going to be repealed.

According to Gingrich, the CBO should be done away with because its analysis shows that, as enacted, health care reform reduces the federal budget deficit. This means that repealing it — as many in the GOP base to which Gingrich is appealing wants to do — will increase the deficit and, therefore, require spending cuts or revenue increases to offset the impact. That, of course, will make the repeal effort much harder and far less likely.

But instead of proposing those offsets — that is, instead of doing the budget equivalent of taking steps to lower his blood pressure by losing weight, using less salt or taking medication — Gingrich wants to kill the CBO budget doctor so he doesn’t have to hear any more bad reports.

This is as outrageous a proposal for the federal budget as it would be for treating high blood pressure. The difference is that while Gingrich wouldn’t actually dare do away with his doctor, he obviously had no problem suggesting that for the CBO.

Until the CBO was created in 1974 by the Congressional Budget Act, federal budgeting in general and Congressional budgeting in particular was in the fiscal equivalent of the Dark Ages.

This was a period when rigorous budget analysis was in short supply and the House and Senate made decisions on spending and revenue issues based more on political wants rather than on high-quality information. It was also the time when the committee that reported a bill was the one who told you what it would cost or save, when those in charge considered questioning the committee as political heresy and when heretics often were punished.

This also was when there was no equivalent of the Office of Management and Budget on Capitol Hill and Congress had no choice but to take the OMB’s word as gospel. This was the case even though, as an executive branch agency, the OMB’s primary responsibility is to protect and promote the president’s initiatives rather than give Congress information it can use to defeat what the White House wants to do.

This is why the CBO was created: to give Congress an independent analytical assessment of the budget implications of what is being considered so it’s in a much better position to understand the fiscal effect of the decisions being made.

The GOP, including Gingrich, hasn’t always been unhappy with the CBO.

It was the CBO’s 1994 analysis that provided Congressional Republicans with some of the most powerful ammunition that stopped President Bill Clinton’s health care reform plan from being enacted.

The CBO’s conclusion that, completely contrary to what the Clinton White House and the OMB were saying, the proposal had to be included on budget immediately made the plan politically untenable. Republicans in the House and Senate rejoiced, praised the CBO’s independent analysis and courage and relied heavily on the CBO’s analysis to criticize the proposal.

But this also isn’t the first or only issue over which Republicans have been furious with the CBO: Its analysis of the effect of proposed tax cuts on revenues has always been a big point of contention.

Even though, by law, the revenue effect of proposed tax changes is actually determined by the Joint Committee on Taxation, the CBO has almost always taken the political hit from Republicans when the tax cuts they have wanted to enact haven’t been scored as paying for themselves. As with health care reform, this almost always has made what the GOP wanted to do legislatively much more difficult.

The Gingrich proposal is a clear escalation from what other senior Republicans have tried to do to get around CBO scorekeeping rules. For example, earlier this year, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) specifically told the CBO the assumptions it should use when analyzing the revenue components of his budget plan. In a variation of the GOP tax-cuts-increase-federal-revenues position, Ryan told the CBO to assume that taxes would be at a certain percentage of gross domestic product if his plan were adopted rather than allowing it to make an independent assessment. This made the plan look better than it otherwise would have been.

To be fair, there also have been Democratic proposals to reduce or eliminate the effect of the budget scoring rules at one or more points in the history of the Congressional budget process. For example, although I no longer recall the specific issue involved, I do remember the late Senate Finance Chairman Russell Long (D-La.) proposing to temporarily suspend the Congressional Budget Act so that something he wanted to do could get done. And very early in its history there were threats to cut CBO funding because a powerful Democratic Member didn’t like some of the things its first director — Alice Rivlin — had been saying in speeches.

But I can’t recall anyone else in the now almost 40 years since the CBO was created saying that it should be eliminated because she or he didn’t like its numbers. That may change the legislative environment, but it won’t change any of the budget realities. And that definitely should raise everyone’s blood pressure.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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