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Top Republicans have waged war on the CBO. Now former CBO directors are fighting back.

Congressional Budget Office Director Keith Hall Holds Briefing On Economic Outlook Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Congressional Budget Office — an independent body tasked with projecting the effects of legislative proposals — has become a Republican punching bag.

Unhappy with CBO’s reports estimating their GOP health bills would leave tens of millions more people uninsured, top Republican lawmakers have taken to disregarding CBO’s analyses altogether, picking apart its methodology and asserting bias.

Now eight former CBO directors are hitting back with a letter to congressional leadership, making the case for CBO’s importance.

“We write to express our strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process,” they wrote. “As the House and Senate consider potential policy changes this year and in the years ahead, we urge you to maintain and respect the Congress’s decades-long reliance on CBO’s estimates in developing and scoring bills.”

The letter comes on the heels of two CBO reports released this week on the Senate’s revised health bill, which is estimated to insure 22 million fewer Americans than would be insured under Obamacare, and a bill to repeal large parts of the Affordable Care Act, which would insure an estimated 32 million fewer people.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) called their most recent projections on the revised Senate health bill “bogus.” Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) shared a similar sentiment, poking holes in the CBO’s methodology in an effort to disregard the projections altogether.

Rep. Tom Garrett (R-VA) even accused the CBO of conspiring against Congressional Republicans, saying the office purposefully released an updated negative report of the Obamacare repeal bill on the same day the House’s archconservatives filed a motion to force a floor vote on the bill. Others, like Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), point to the CBO’s projections for Obamacare back when the law was passed, which overestimated how many people would be insured.

The CBO has been off in its projections in the past (although its original Obamacare analysis was still closer than most competitors). And it’s still the only official and nonpartisan estimation of the effects of legislation, former CBO directors argued:

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

As Republicans barrel toward some health care-related vote next week, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the GOP’s main defense against projections of insurance coverage losses is just to claim, sometimes only on intuition, that it won’t happen.

Here is the letter in full:


Dear Mr. Speaker, Madam Leader, Mr. Majority Leader, and Mr. Minority Leader:

The undersigned represent every former Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). We write to express our strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.

CBO began serving the Congress in 1975. Over the past 42 years CBO has been firmly committed to providing nonpartisan and high-quality analysis — and that commitment remains as strong and effective today as it has been in the past. Because CBO works for the Congress, and only the Congress, the agency’s analysis addresses the unique needs of legislators.

To meet the standard of nonpartisan objectivity, CBO makes no recommendations about policy, regularly consults with researchers and practitioners with a wide range of views (as can be seen in the agency’s panels of advisers and reviewers for major studies), and enhances its transparency by releasing extensive descriptions of its analytic techniques and forecast record. To produce estimates of high quality, CBO uses its detailed understanding of federal programs and economic conditions, ongoing interactions with government officials and private-sector experts, the best academic research, and the latest available data consistent with the timing of the Congressional budget process.

CBO’s approach produces consistent comparisons of competing legislative proposals and unbiased projections of the impact of policy changes. Unfortunately, even nonpartisan and high-quality analysis cannot always generate accurate estimates. Policy changes are often complex, the economy is dynamic and defies precise prediction, and many policies are modified over time. However, such analysis does generate estimates that are more accurate, on average, than estimates or guesses by people who are not objective and not as well informed as CBO’s analysts.

In sum, relying on CBO’s estimates in the legislative process has served the Congress — and the American people — very well during the past four decades. As the House and Senate consider potential policy changes this year and in the years ahead, we urge you to maintain and respect the Congress’s decades-long reliance on CBO’s estimates in developing and scoring bills.

Sincerely,

Dan L. Crippen

Former Executive Director, National Governors Association (CBO Director, 1999–2003)

Douglas W. Elmendorf

Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School (CBO Director, 2009–2015)

Douglas Holtz-Eakin

President, American Action Forum (CBO Director, 2003–2005)

June E. O’Neill

Wollman Distinguished Professor Of Economics, The City University of New York (CBO Director, 1995–1999)

Peter R. Orszag

Vice Chairman of Investment Banking and Managing Director, Lazard (CBO Director, 2007–2008)

Rudolph G. Penner

Institute Fellow, Urban Institute (CBO Director, 1983–1987)

Robert D. Reischauer

Distinguished Institute Fellow and President Emeritus, Urban Institute (CBO Director, 1989–1995)

Alice M. Rivlin

Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution (CBO Director, 1975–1983)

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