Did Eric Cantor's Criticism of ObamaCare's Budgeting Cross a New Line for the GOP?


Is Eric Cantor, the GOP's new House Majority Leader, accusing the Congressional Budget Office of bad faith for its health care scores? A report in The New York Times suggests that Cantor is pioneering a new and especially harsh criticism of the congressional scorekeeper. According to the piece, Cantor "crossed beyond the Republicans' longstanding criticism of the health care law in his indictment of the Congressional Budget Office" when he "accused the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday of misrepresenting the cost of the recently enacted health care law at the behest of Democrats in Congress."

This wouldn't be entirely surprising given reports that another top House Republican, Speaker John Boehner, is still unhappy with CBO director Douglas Elmendorf because of the office's health care scores. And it would be a mistake on Cantor's part if it were accurate. But I'm not sure that the Times correctly characterized the Majority Leader's remarks.

Cantor, via a spokesman, has already told the Times that the intent of the remarks was not to bash the CBO. And, more importantly, the quotes the Times provides don't suggest that that's what Cantor was doing. I haven't seen a complete transcript, and I'm told the remarks were not recorded by C-SPAN, but according to the NYT's report, Cantor argued that the score was a product of "gimmicks." That's hardly a novel criticism; Rep. Paul Ryan said much the same thing, in greater detail, at last year's health care summit. Nor is it really a criticism of the CBO's work. The standard criticism of the health care scoring process has been that although the CBO does solid work, it is constrained in the way it scores legislation, and Democrats employed a variety in gimmicks in order to game those constraints.

According to the piece, Cantor also said the following:

First of all, about the budget implications, I think most people understand that the C.B.O. did the job it was asked to do by the then-Democrat majority, and it was really comparing apples to oranges….It talked about 10 years worth of tax hikes and six years worth of benefits. Everyone knows beyond the 10-year window, this bill has the potential to bankrupt this federal government as well as the states. So that speaks to the budget implications of that.

This is not the most elegant or precise explanation of why the CBO's scores are probably not the most accurate real-world guess as to the budgetary effects of the health care law. Indeed, Cantor's explanation of the way the law packaged just six years of benefits into the CBO's ten-year scored window confuses deficit reduction with total cost. At least in theory, it's possible for a bill to spend a lot of money and still bring down the deficit if the bill also makes cuts and brings in new revenue in excess of the spending. That particular trick was employed to keep the total cost of running the program for ten years down; starting the bulk of the benefits, and thus the bulk of the spending, four years into the ten-year window means that you're really only measuring six years of cost in the ten-year score.

But if you look past the awkward phrasing, Cantor's statement was hardly new: Rep. Paul Ryan, who has praised the CBO's work on many occasions, said much the same thing, as did former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin—another critic of the new legislation who has also defended the work of his former employer.

So Cantor offered a somewhat mangled version of a familiar critique of the law's score. But contrary to the description provided by the Times, it doesn't seem like a novel or particularly aggressive criticism of the CBO. Indeed, in saying that "most people understand that the CBO. did the job it was asked to do by the then-Democrat majority," Cantor seems to be nodding to the idea that the CBO was constrained and the Democrats are to blame for gaming the scoring process. 

(Thanks to Aaron Carroll for first noting the article.)