This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on March 13, 2017.
Former Brookings Expert
Congress faces a daunting legislative agenda. Health care is “complicated,” as President Trump discovered. So are tax reform and spending bills that reflect campaign promises without escalating future debt. There are deep divisions within the president’s own party over many of his proposals, and Republicans will need (and should want) Democratic help to pass many of them.
There will be serious disputes about the cost of many proposals and what their effects are likely to be. To get through even part of this agenda and do its job under the Constitution, Congress needs all the help it can get from the team of neutral experts it created for just this purpose at the Congressional Budget Office.
CBO was part of Congress’s response to the Constitutional crisis created by President Nixon when he impounded (refused to spend) funds that had been appropriated by Congress and signed by him. Outrage at executive overreach prompted Congress to pass the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974 which reestablished Congress as an equal partner with the executive branch in deciding the country’s fiscal and legislative policies. The new law strengthened the congressional budget process by creating two new budget committees and a nonpartisan, independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to provide estimates and budget analysis to both the House and the Senate, Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
I had the privilege of serving as the first director of the CBO and later as the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The two jobs are very different. CBO serves the Congress; OMB serves the President. Given the Constitutional separation of executive and legislation powers, both offices are needed.
For 42 years, CBO has earned congressional and public respect by providing neutral, nonpartisan estimates of costs and effects of pending legislation, including analyses of alternative policy options. It has a long-established tradition of able leadership and highly qualified, hard-working staff. It is a valuable resource for Congress that both parties need.
Undermining the credibility of CBO when policymakers need it most harms not only Congress’ ability to do its job, but also the long-run effectiveness of both political parties.
Recently, some members of Congress and the Administration have questioned the need for CBO estimates. The President’s press secretary said that “he would sooner accept an analysis from the Office of Management and Budget, whose director was appointed by President Donald Trump” than CBO’s estimates. His view is not surprising. All presidents passionately favor their own proposals and are optimistic about what they will cost and how much good they will do. When I ran OMB in the first Clinton administration, we often thought the CBO did not appreciate how great our proposals were, especially the ill-fated Clinton health plan, which CBO thought would have a much more negative impact on the budget than we alleged.
Congress is an independent branch of government that needs its own team of neutral experts before they decide on legislation. Fortunately, they have a strong team at CBO. CBO won’t get everything right—they originally over-estimated the cost of the Affordable Care Act, primarily because they expected more people to sign up—but they will do their best to sort through the complexity of these proposals and give Congress the benefit of their best judgement.
President Trump is not the first incoming president to misunderstand the role of the CBO. The supply-side economists in the incoming Reagan Administration held extremely optimistic views about the big jump in economic growth that would be caused by President Reagan’s proposed tax cuts. Because they feared CBO might question their “rosy scenario,” they suggested ousting the CBO Director (that would have been me.) But then Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, supported by Republican Majority Leader Bob Dole, quickly informed the White House that the CBO worked for Congress, not the president, and White House meddling with the CBO was not appropriate.
Undermining the credibility of CBO when policymakers need it most harms not only Congress’ ability to do its job, but also the long-run effectiveness of both political parties in addressing the challenges that face our country’s future.
The Congressional Republican party, as Speaker Ryan has emphasized, must make the transition from opposing to governing. Governing is hard, and it will be far harder if every member of Congress can pick and choose among estimates of the costs and consequences of the complex proposals being considered. To address the daunting legislative agenda before them and legislate in the best interest of the country, Congress needs to use the great resource that it has in the CBO.