AP Explains: CBO's independent views can rankle lawmakers


The Congressional Budget Office is a scorekeeper suddenly in the spotlight. 

Monday's estimate of the House GOP's health care measure gave ammunition to Democratic critics of the law, predicting that 14 million people would lose insurance next year. Republicans had been bracing for the report, with some of them attacking CBO as being inaccurate in past assessments. 

The obscure but respected agency, established under the 1974 budget act, provides cost estimates of legislation, baseline projections of the federal budget and its components, and independent economic and deficit statistics for lawmakers. 

It's counterweight to the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of a Democratic or Republican White House. 

Trump administration officials and some congressional Republicans preemptively criticized CBO ahead of its assessment of the cost and coverage in the Republican replacement to the Affordable Care Act. 

What you need to know about the CBO: 

Respected, not infallible 

CBO is respected for the nonpartisan rigor its 200-plus employees put into the 600 or so official cost estimates it performs each year — and the thousands of informal estimates it provides as committees draft legislation. But it's hardly infallible, especially when considering large, complex and far-ranging legislation like the Affordable Care Act. 

The agency's estimates, for instance, significantly overstated the number of people who would buy insurance on state and federal exchanges under the law, in part because it thought the individual mandate and accompanying tax penalties would be more effective in forcing people to buy insurance. 

"Predicting the effects of large policy changes is always difficult, but CBO's predictions for the (Affordable Care Act) in 2010 were much more accurate than the predictions of many Republican opponents of the law," said former agency chief Doug Elmendorf, who was appointed by Democrats. 

The agency was also way off in the early 2000s when it predicted large long-term budget surpluses that eased the way for large tax cuts in the George W. Bush era. 

A new sheriff in town 

Even as Republicans attack the referee, it should be remembered that they hired the referee. CBO Director Keith Hall, a conservative economist, was selected two years ago by Republican Tom Price, then the chairman of the House Budget Committee and now the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Hall had been a critic of the Affordable Care Act and increasing the minimum wage. He has overseen an increase, long-sought by Republicans, in the use of "dynamic scoring" — in which the economic effects of tax changes and other policies are incorporated into CBO's analysis. CBO, for instance, has said Obama's health law has had a dampening effect on labor force participation and would slightly reduce growth. 

But CBO also disagrees with those who characterize "Obamacare" as in a "death spiral" and predicts that this year's big jumps in insurance premiums — averaging 21 percent nationwide — are actually likely to stabilize going forward with increases of 5 to 6 percent. That's because companies have been getting better information about the demographic traits of their customers. 

In Monday's report, CBO said the insurance market "would probably be stable in most areas under either current law or the legislation." 

Where you sit determines where you stand 

Criticism of the CBO is hardly new, but it is unusual to be coming from top officials like White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that "estimating the impact of a bill of this size probably isn't the best use of (the CBO's) time." That remark sparked criticism from agency defenders on social media sites, where Peter Orszag, a former director of both the CBO and the Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama, wrote, "The former OMB and CBO director in me is speechless." 

But complaining about bad scores is nothing new. Democrats complained when drafting Obamacare; Republicans are carping now. 

"For more than 40 years, we've produced independent analysis of budgetary and economic issues," Hall said at a news conference in January. "The feedback I've always gotten is that we in general have a very strong reputation for our work. We try very, very hard to be independent and nonpartisan."


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Trump’s first year: JFK comparisons, golf, missiles, the 561 Cabinet, other Palm Beach highlights
Trump’s first year: JFK comparisons, golf, missiles, the 561 Cabinet, other Palm Beach highlights

Presidents in Palm Beach: JFK and Jackie with kids on Easter in 1963; Donald and Melania Trump at Easter last year. (Kennedy photo from JFK Library; Trump photo by Melanie Bell/Palm Beach Daily News) PALM BEACH — John F. Kennedy was America’s first Palm Beach president, but Donald...
Shutdown: Some Senate Dems from Trump states vote with GOP; Florida’s Bill Nelson does not
Shutdown: Some Senate Dems from Trump states vote with GOP; Florida’s Bill Nelson does not

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (left) supported a short-term spending measure to avert a federal government shutdown; Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson was opposed. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post) Five Democratic senators from states that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 broke with party leadership late Friday and voted...
Here's what has happened during previous government shutdowns
Here's what has happened during previous government shutdowns

It’s fairly certain the government will shut down. If the Senate doesn’t pass the short-term spending bill —passed earlier by the House — by midnight Friday, it will happen. Under a shutdown, thousands of federal employees would go without pay and national parks would close, among other things.  Here's a look at the key...
House Speaker: Florida lawmakers to weigh oversight of high-speed rail
House Speaker: Florida lawmakers to weigh oversight of high-speed rail

House Speaker Richard Corcoran said a push by some lawmakers for state oversight of high-speed passenger rail will get consideration during this year’s legislative session. But he offered little detail, as opponents want to put the brakes on a controversial new rail service in South Florida following a second recent death on the tracks. »...
Former PBC Fire Rescue chief Collins says he wants his job back
Former PBC Fire Rescue chief Collins says he wants his job back

Former Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Jeffrey Collins, who resigned in the aftermath of sexual harassment and retaliation complaints that have rocked the department, said Friday he wants his job back. During a 22-minute press conference at the law offices of his attorneys in Boca Raton, Collins, a 21-year veteran of the department, said County...
More Stories