Opinion: Congress, the CBO Is Not Your Football

As omnibus approaches, lawmakers should resist the temptation to throw the agency around

CBO Director Keith Hall, right, talks with Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi before an oversight hearing in January. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
CBO Director Keith Hall, right, talks with Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi before an oversight hearing in January. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:02am

Congress finally heads for a vote this week on a long overdue omnibus appropriations package for fiscal 2018 — a year that is nearly halfway over. Fiscal policy debates on taxes and health care have added friction to an already partisan atmosphere.

Caught in the middle of this endless wrangling on Capitol Hill about budget priorities — where to cut, where to spend — is an organization that has come under fire for telling it like it is on the cost of those proposals, the Congressional Budget Office.

Members of Congress would do well to remember that the agency is not there to show them the results they want to see. It is there to expose hard truths, forcing lawmakers to weigh policy priorities against one another and to be held accountable for their decisions.

At the CBO, staff members labor behind-the-scenes year-round to provide Congress with nonpartisan fiscal policy analysis. They help lawmakers perform perhaps their most critical legislative function — funding the government.

Congress established the agency more than 40 years ago to provide the legislative branch with a steady supply of independent budget information during a time when the executive branch had acquired significant control over federal purse strings. The capabilities of the agency have grown, and with a track record of respected leadership, it now operates as a powerful analytical entity.

Meanwhile, congressional rules have evolved so that the CBO’s estimates of the budget effects of legislation often play a central role in resolving procedural impasses. This has made the institution a positive resource for advocates of fiscal responsibility.

But communication with Congress remains a challenge as the agency struggles to keep pace with high congressional demand for its estimates and analyses. We believe the CBO must continue to seek ways to improve its coordination and responsiveness.

Target practice

To the credit of the House Budget Committee, it has recognized the importance of improving communication with the agency and should be commended for holding a series of oversight hearings to examine the CBO and how it can better serve the needs of its clients — members of Congress.
Still, when the going gets tough, the CBO too often becomes a target.

Blaming the referee can be attractive, because it distracts from the core issues and because lawmakers know that, unlike their political opponents, the CBO will not engage in a public fight.

Despite its imperfections, the budget office remains uniquely qualified to carry out the important functions it performs. No outside group has the expertise, bona fides and institutional credibility that it brings to the table.

Recent proposals, motivated by politics, to downsize the organization or privatize its functions are misguided. Each director of the agency naturally holds personal political preferences, but the CBO has remained scrupulously independent throughout its history.

Less money, more problems

The American public already faces an uphill battle when trying to interpret various federal policy proposals and their budgetary implications. Imagine how much more difficult that challenge would be in the absence of apolitical arbiters like the CBO.

The agency’s analyses receive more attention now than ever, placing a premium on clarity and openness, not only for Congress but for the taxpaying public. An increase in demand for cost estimates without the appropriate resources has stressed the agency.

Realistically, the CBO needs some additional funding. The agency acknowledges that it can do better by improving transparency and providing more information about its methods, but the staff is currently stretched too thin to devote further time to this while still carrying out the agency’s core functions.

Dysfunction in the annual budget process makes matters worse, unnecessarily straining the agency’s capacity.

The two-month delay to April of the CBO’s annual budget and economic outlook (to accommodate the omnibus that is just now being finalized) is only the latest example.

Restoring regular order to Congress’ consideration of budget resolutions, spending, revenue and debt-limit legislation would go a long way toward curing that dysfunction and getting more out of the CBO.

The new Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Reform will hopefully propose meaningful improvements on this front. Its recommendations should be made with the CBO’s role in mind.

Nonpartisan analysis is not the product of splitting the difference between partisan positions. Rather, it is an objective assessment of likely outcomes based on available data and information. That is what the CBO and its talented staff set out to do each and every day.

Sandy Davis is a senior adviser with BPC’s Economic Policy Project and a former associate director for legislative affairs at the CBO.

Shai Akabas is BPC’s director of economic policy and previously worked on the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force at BPC.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

Watch: Ryan Wants Omnibus Done ‘as Fast as Possible’

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