John Boehner vs. the CBO


Rep. John Boehner is reportedly unhappy with Congressional Budget Director Doug Elmendorf and may try to have him ousted. According to Politico, Boehner is "angry about Elmendorf's role in health care." The suggestion is that Elmendorf caved to White House pressure to produce a favorable score.  

I was pretty vocal in my criticism of the official scores of the health care law, and I still don't think they represent the best real-world guess about the effects of the health care law on the budget. But I also don't think you can really lay the blame primarily at Elmendorf's feet. The whole idea behind CBO is that it would be an authoritative, impartial scorekeeper. It can't make recommendations about what legislation might be a good idea, or build assumptions about political motivations and machinations into its scores. As I've said before, its scores reside in the world of legislative reality rather than political reality.

As former CBO Director—and harsh ObamaCare critic—Douglas Holtz-Eakin explained back in March, the CBO has a responsibility to assess legislation as if it will be implemented exactly as written.So legislation that relies on unrealistic assumptions (like the PPACA) will result in an unrealistic score. "The budget office," wrote Holtz-Eakin, "is required to take written legislation at face value and not second-guess the plausibility of what it is handed. So fantasy in, fantasy out."

The scores produced under Elmendorf hinted at this, underlining the uncertain nature of the projections and noting that the "projections assume that the provisions of [the bill] are enacted and remain unchanged throughout the next two decades, which is often not the case for major legislation." Even more dramatically, after the law's passage, Elmendorf chose to include the assumption that some of the law's long-term savings would not pay off in the CBO's alternative fiscal scenario, suggesting he believes it's distinctly possible that some of those savings mechanisms won't work out.

Now, as the Politico piece points out, Boehner may actually not go after Elmendorf. For one thing, he may not make time. For another, it would represent a breach of custom; although appointment the position is technically up to both the Speaker and the Senate president pro tempore, in practice, they've usually traded off.

That means, though, that if Boehner did push for a replacement, he would probably have to find someone who would be acceptable to Senate Democrats. I'm not sure who that would be; all the obvious candidates are either too politically divisive or unlikely to accept the job. Elemendorf, meanwhile, has some bipartisan support: Rep. Paul Ryan, the top Republican on the House budget committee—and, it should be noted, a fierce critic of fiscal gimmickry related to the health care overhaul—has said that he supports Elmendorf. That should tell you something.

Boehner may be unhappy with the way Democrats exploited the scoring system, but his anger at Elmendorf is probably misplaced. And either way, it's not clear that he could do better with a different candidate.

Read my long feature on the politics and history of the CBO here