BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Two proposed amendments to the House legislative branch appropriation bill would cut funding and staffing for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) by as much as 50 percent. House members should reject these amendments, offered by Representatives Scott Perry and Morgan Griffith, which would seriously curtail the information available to Congress about the budgetary and economic effects of proposed legislation.
Last week all eight former CBO directors — both Republican and Democratic — wrote congressional leaders to highlight CBO’s essential role in the legislative process:
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.
Donald Marron, a former deputy director and acting director of CBO, now at the Urban Institute, recently explained why outside researchers can’t replace CBO’s Budget Analysis Division, as Representative Griffith proposes:
The most important difference between research organizations and Congress is also the most obvious. CBO works for Congress and only for Congress. CBO works closely with the budget committees and House and Senate leadership to juggle priorities, set deadlines, and provide the analyses Congress needs and wants. CBO obeys congressional budget rules, even when it disagrees with them. CBO has the backing of Congress when it gathers data and information from agencies. . . .
Eliminating CBO’s budget team would also weaken Congress. Congress created CBO in the early 1970s as part of a larger battle with President Nixon about power over the purse. Congress created CBO to ensure its own source of credible budget information. Defunding CBO’s budget team would weaken Congress at a moment when objective budget information and a balance between Congress and the President are as important as ever.
My colleagues [at research organizations] and I would welcome opportunities to provide more help to Congress as members grapple with policy challenges, develop options, and try to understand the range of potential outcomes. But asking us to replace CBO’s budget team would undermine thoughtful policy making and weaken the Congress.