It must be the middle of November, because once again a prominent Republican is blaming the GOP’s legislative troubles on the Congressional Budget Office. Last year, Politico reported that House Speaker John Boehner was so angry about the budget office’s health care scoring that he wanted to oust director Douglas Elmendorf. This time around, it’s Newt Gingrich who’s on the attack, calling the office a “reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that it has not internally generated,” according to CNN.
Budgeting: It’s like socialism! Except not.
Boehner’s irritation was misplaced, and so is Newt’s criticism, which ends up being more self-serving than anything else. The CBO is far from perfect—I’ve spent plenty of time arguing that its scores of President Obama’s health care overhaul don’t accurately reflect the true cost of the law. But the primary problem isn’t the CBO. It’s the elected officials who pass and write legislation. Indeed, the CBO was created in part to restrain politically motivated budgeting B.S.
As former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin told me earlier this year, the primary job of the CBO is to score, not forecast, using a consistent set of rules so that legislators and other analysts can compare the relative cost of any particular bill to other legislation. The agency doesn’t second-guess legislative proposals, or try to anticipate changes made by future Congresses. It scores each law as if it will be implemented exactly as it is on paper. “By having that set of rules for scoring, you can compare games across time, across teams, and across all sorts of situations, because you have a common thread of scores,” Holtz-Eakin said. “So the most important thing about scoring is to apply the same rules to every bill.” With the health care overhaul, Democrats in Congress knew this, and took advantage of the agency’s consistent scoring rules in order to produce a favorable legislative score.
When Gingrich complains that the office “doesn’t believe in innovation,” he’s really complaining that they look skeptically on untested budgeting ideas. It’s worth remembering that the CBO didn’t give Democrats everything they wanted on the health care bill, and precisely because of this skepticism. As Matt Yglesias points out, liberal policy wonks had hoped that the law’s array of delivery system innovations and payment reforms would be scored as producing big savings. But because the reforms were all untested, and because the federal government’s record of implementing scalable systematic reforms is weak, the CBO didn’t give them much in the way of savings.
Gingrich, a flaky innovation obsessive who has always had too many half-baked ideas for his own good, clearly doesn’t like that the CBO is bound to shrug its shoulders at his latest plan to build and staff a real-life Jurassic Park with part-time high-schoolers, or whatever.
And anyway, what’s the alternative? The CBO was created in part as an independent check on White House budget baloney, which in both Democratic and Republican administrations tends to be overly optimistic. One of the harshest assessments of the president’s budget this year came from the CBO. Without the CBO, the White House would have an even easier time touting rosy economic projections, and legislators could tout favorable cost estimates drawn up by their own staff (early in the CBO’s life, it effectively killed a universal health care bill put together by Sen. Ted Kennedy when it estimated that the law would cost three times as much as Kennedy’s staff claimed). As the health care law showed, the CBO’s rules can be gamed. But it’s still better to have those rules than to throw them out.
Gingrich’s complaints tell you more about his own penchant for policy vanity and apocalyptic name-calling than they do about the CBO, or the actual flaws in the congressional budgeting process. Like so many political narcissists, he appears to want to be able to get away with saying that legislation will cost whatever he says it will cost. And when that doesn’t happen? “Reactionary socialism!”