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Former CBO Directors Confront Assaults on Agency

Both Republicans and Democrats alike decry attacks

Douglas Elmendorf, as well as all his fellow former directors of the Congressional Budget Office, sent a letter to Congress protesting recent attacks on the nonpartisan budget scorekeeper. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Douglas Elmendorf, as well as all his fellow former directors of the Congressional Budget Office, sent a letter to Congress protesting recent attacks on the nonpartisan budget scorekeeper. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

All eight former directors of the Congressional Budget Office — Democrats and Republicans alike — sent a letter to Congress on Friday protesting the ongoing attacks on the agency’s integrity and urging that Congress continue to rely on CBO estimates.

In the letter, the former directors registered what they said was their “strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.”

The nonpartisan agency, which works for Congress, has been the target of sporadic complaints since its founding in 1975. Those came mostly from lawmakers who were dissatisfied with the CBO’s estimate of the cost of legislation they sponsored, including from Democrats unhappy with the 2010 scoring of the health care law.

But the criticism took a more pointed turn in recent months, with attacks coming from Republicans, including the White House and some GOP leaders, who charged the agency is wrong in its estimates that a GOP health care repeal bill would lead to tens of millions more people not having health insurance.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, has taken on a prominent role.

In May, he singled out one of the agency’s staff analysts, questioning her objectivity because she had worked in the Department of Health and Human Services during the administration of former President Bill Clinton. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former CBO director who is a Republican, tweeted at the time that Mulvaney’s words were a “disgrace,” showed “budget ignorance” and that he should apologize, which Mulvaney did several days later.

In another development this week, the House Budget Committee produced its own estimate of the economic growth that would ensue if all the policies in the fiscal 2018 budget resolution were implemented.

The committee in the past relied on the CBO for what is called a macroeconomic analysis. House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black did not fault the CBO but the Tennessee Republican said the committee used a different methodology than the budget office. Under the 1974 budget law, the Budget Committee is the official scorekeeper, but the panel usually relies on the CBO for cost estimates.

Broad support

Douglas W. Elmendorf, a Democrat, and Holtz-Eakin were among those who signed. Elmendorf currently serves as dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, while Holtz-Eakin is president of the American Action Forum, which describes itself as a center-right educational organization.

Republicans in 2015 named Keith Hall as director of the agency. Hall is a veteran of the George W. Bush administration and served in positions including as chief economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers and commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The former directors say in the letter that the CBO never makes recommendations about policy, regularly consults with outside experts, and “enhances its transparency by releasing extensive descriptions of its analytic techniques and forecast record.”

“CBO’s approach produces consistent comparisons of competing legislative proposals and unbiased projections of the impact of policy changes,” they write. But the letter adds that “even nonpartisan and high-quality analysis cannot always generate accurate estimates.”

“Policy changes are often complex, the economy is dynamic and defies prediction, and many policies are modified over time,” it states.

Nevertheless, the letter also credits CBO estimates with being “more accurate, on average, than estimates or guesses by people who are not objective and not as well informed as CBO’s analysts.”

Congress created the CBO as part of the landmark 1974 budget act in part so it could rely on its own estimates of the cost of legislation. Prior to that, lawmakers depended on the president’s budget office or other estimates.

Alice M. Rivlin, the first CBO director and a Democrat, signed the letter, as well as Rudolph G. Penner, a Republican who succeeded her. The other signers are Dan L. Crippen, June E. O’Neill, Peter R. Orszag, and Robert D. Reischauer.