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Keith Hall is off to a great start at the CBO

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Let us now praise Keith Hall.

When congressional Republicans elevated him to the job of directing the Congressional Budget Office, he wasn't a widely known figure in media circles. He'd served as chief economist of the White House Council on Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, and then was Bush's appointee for a four-year stint as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics starting in 2008. These are pretty low-profile gigs that tend to happen outside the glare of super-partisan politics.

But his CBO appointment was bound up with a push by the GOP for more "dynamic scoring" of tax policy. It's an idea that makes sense in theory, but in practice is often just an excuse for magical thinking about the possibility of enacting tax cuts without paying for them. Yet today Hall's CBO released its first big dynamic score of something controversial, and it's ... perfectly sensible.

The Affordable Care Act will make people work less

The big dynamic element that Hall's CBO introduced into the analysis is the idea that the US economy will have fewer total hours worked with Obamacare than it would have without it.

Liberals aren't necessarily eager to hear this, but the logic is compelling and, when you think about it, not especially damning to the ACA's cause. The basic issue is that by offering lower-income workers subsidies to buy health insurance, the ACA makes it less terrible to be poor. By making it less terrible to be poor, the ACA reduces the incentive to do an extra hour or three at an unpleasant low-wage job in order to put a little more money in your pocket.

CBO's point is that when you do this, you shrink the overall size of GDP and thus the total amount of federal tax revenue.

The ACA still cuts the deficit

(Congressional Budget Office)

The upshot of this, according to the CBO, is that repealing the Affordable Care Act will not increase the federal budget deficit as much as previous estimates implied.

At the same time, it still does increase the federal budget deficit.

The change, in other words, is big enough to matter economically (tens of billions of dollars a year are at stake) but not big enough to matter for the world of political talking points where the main question is does the deficit go up or down.

A credible dynamic score

This means that under Hall's leadership, the CBO has done exactly what many of us feared it couldn't do — produce a score that is both dynamic and credible. Rather than being reverse-engineered to say what congressional Republicans want it to say, the dynamic score slightly deflates an Obama administration claim while in many ways bolstering its robustness.

Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) chooses to emphasize the CBO's finding that repealing Obamacare will make GDP go up.

That's fair spin for him. It is quite true that when liberals succeed in improving the lives of the poor, this has the consequence of making poor people somewhat less interested in working that double shift at McDonald's. Whether that makes anti-poverty spending a bad idea is a debate worth having. Keith Hall and the CBO staff took a potentially credibility-destroying mandate and turned it into a constructive opportunity to raise that issue.

It's a bit of a thankless task, so let's say thanks.

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