As Ezra Klein points out in his article today, the CBO is pretty much the only institution in Washington that’s fair and impartial. And let’s remember that they told Dems that their health care bill wasn’t paid for over and over again…until Dems actually found a way to pay for it that made sense. I think it was revised 3 or 4 times to make sure it got the CBO’s approval. Even Republicans were hammering Dems with the bad CBO reports when they came out…and then nary a word was mentioned when the CBO approved.

And yet we have this…

The agency’s product is nothing more than “budget gimmicks, deceptive accounting, and implausible assumptions used to create the false impression of fiscal discipline,” wrote conservative wonks Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Joseph Antos and James C. Capretta in the Wall Street Journal. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) says the CBO’s numbers are based on “smoke and mirrors.” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), angry that the CBO thinks tax cuts reduce tax revenue – no doubt the agency has also been known to say that the sun rises in the east – has called for the CBO to be abolished.

The sad reality is that it’s not hard to discredit budget estimates in 30-second soundbites: You just say whatever you want and trust that your opponent doesn’t have anywhere near enough time to explain the issue. Take Republican criticisms that the “doc fix” isn’t included in the CBO’s scores, and that if it were, the health-care bill would increase the deficit. It’s absurd. In 1997, congressional Republicans capped the rate at which Medicare could increase payments to physicians. But their cap was too low. Now they want Democrats to fix it for them and pile the costs onto the bill. It’s a little like saying that the cost of the war in Iraq should be added to health-care reform.

But you’ll notice it took a moment to explain that. It’s easier to just say that the score is full of “smoke and mirrors” and then make some authoritative-sounding point about Medicare payments. Who’s got the time to check it out?

See, I want to like Paul Ryan. I really do. I want to think he’s serious and thoughtful. But then you have this nonsense. And to that point…

If getting the CBO’s seal of approval ceases to matter, then political parties will cease to try. That’s when the “smoke and mirrors” will really begin: when bills just have to sound good rather than pencil out. When there are no skeptical budget experts sending legislation back to the authors with a note that says, “Sorry, not there yet.” When policy debates are decided by who can yell the loudest rather than who can write the best bill.

The bargain that both parties have struck with the CBO is that they’ll accept the short-term setbacks the agency imposes on them because, in the long run, it’s better for the system to have someone keeping score. Right now, Republicans are breaking that bargain. They’re not merely saying that the CBO’s guess is bad, or that the CBO is right but the bill is bad for other reasons, but that the CBO’s whole system is, in the words of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), “Garbage in, garbage out.” Civil? Maybe. Wise? Definitely not.

Do they really think independents and moderates will buy that the CBO has suddenly turned into a partisan organization? They’re playing with fire on this one. But hey, anything for the base, right?

  • kranky kritter

    Collect money for 10 years to pay for 6. That’s balance.

    Pass a bill that says medicare reimbursements will be cut, get a good report card from the CBO, then don’t make those cuts. That’s balance.

    Sure. What even try to discuss such matters with folks who make claims like that with a straight face.

  • Terry Ott

    Until Ezra Klein is able to counter the 1/21/11 op-ed by Charles Krauthammer found at WaPo (“Everything Starts With Repeal”) and elsewhere, I will remain skeptical of CBO’s numbers on this. Why? Because they modeled legislation that is most definitely concocted to make the numbers look good via assumptions, weird timing of collections versus outlays, and such.

    I doubt he will counter, because I doubt he can.

  • Rich Horton

    The independence of the CBO is an important thing, but Klein simply does not prove his premise here.

    Plus, I do not seem to remember Klein wringing his hands when the White House was conducting its PR campaign against the CBO in the summer of 2009. At the time I wrote my Congressman:

    “I am writing to express my uneasiness regarding certain recent actions of the President concerning the CBO. As a professor of Political Science I teach undergraduates about the important independent role the CBO plays in the legislative process, and I was dismayed to learn the office of the President has been attempting to pressure the CBO to produce numbers more amenable to the administration. To my mind such pressure is always unacceptable, intentional or not, as it violates the spirit of the separation of powers enshrined by the Constitution.

    “I hope you will jealously guard the prerogatives of the legislature, regardless of the party holding the White House at the moment. Presidents come and go, the fortunes of parties wax and wane, but the powers of Congress must remain. After all, once given up they will never be reattained.”

    Additionally, the reading of the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” as some sort of systematic attack on the CBO is bizarre. GIGO is simply a term used when discussing modelling, economic or otherwise. I find it hard to believe Klein is ignorant of this fact. His suggestion that there could be something uncivil in the use of the phrase is simple demogoguery.

  • theWord

    Not familiar with the particulars but I would think everyone would want to state their case if they thought something was being assessed incorrectly and from there, I totally agree that it should be the CBOs independent assessment of the information.