A Party Hack Would Ruin the CBO

The Congressional Budget Office's 40th anniversary in February will be ruined if the new Republican leadership in Congress breaks with tradition and names a partisan director.

Impartial leader needed.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Congressional Budget Office should be able to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming February with pride. The agency plays a crucial role in the nation's policy-making, providing rigorous and nonpartisan analysis of the budgetary and economic issues Congress considers, and objectively estimating the cost of legislative proposals.

The occasion will be ruined, however, if the new Republican Congress breaks its long tradition of naming an objective economist/policy analyst as CBO director, when the position becomes vacant next year, and instead appoints a party hack.

The CBO's exalted reputation is perhaps best symbolized by a New Yorker cartoon illustrating someone standing at the entrance to heaven, apparently being interrogated by God. The caption reads: “We don’t use the Congressional Budget Office. We have our own figures.”

This role is all the more astonishing because the office does not have strong institutional protections. Indeed, Congress sets the office's budget and names its director -- and can dismiss that person by a simple majority vote in either house. I like to say that if the CBO were analyzing the CBO, it would conclude that its institutional features are too weak.                                                     

And yet the office has proved remarkably independent. This is due first and foremost to the traditions established by its first director, Alice Rivlin, in 1975, and then to its ensuing accumulation of earned respect. To its credit, Congress has so far refused to kill or even maim the oracle that constrains legislators with politically painful fiscal realities. 

I have seen this unique organization from the inside, having had the honor to serve as director in 2007 and 2008, before leaving to join the Barack Obama administration. I was so impressed by the quality of the staff, and everyone's commitment to the organization, I was reluctant to leave. (I did have one significant disagreement with CBO while I was in the administration, when I thought the office was being too stingy in evaluating the potential savings from reforms to health-care delivery systems.)

Since I left, Doug Elmendorf, an economist who has spent most of his career on the professional staff of the Federal Reserve, has done an exceptional job of guiding the organization through the stormy aftermath of the financial crisis. He has focused on the analytics, and not worried about any political reaction to the results. The howls from both left and right that have sometimes resulted are a hallmark, not a failing, of his tenure. In an increasingly polarized policy-making community, Elmendorf has succeeded in retaining the CBO’s reputation for rigor and fierce nonpartisanship. That is no small feat.

Elmendorf’s term ends early next year. By tradition, the House and Senate take turns choosing the director -- and though there is some debate over whose turn it is, given the election results, it doesn’t matter much.

One of the strongest signals the new congressional leadership could send that it is indeed determined to govern responsibly would be to reappoint Elmendorf. The CBO’s independence, analytical prowess and respected role in policy-making would continue for four more years.

Rumors are circulating, however, that the new leadership might appoint someone who is more an advocate than an analyst. That would be a disaster for the organization. And it would show that the commitment to governing articulated by House Speaker John Boehner and soon-to-be-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell goes only so far. If Elmendorf is not re-appointed, the next director should at least be someone respected for his or her analytical skills, knowledge of policy and independence.

The CBO is one of the few remaining high-performing organizations in government. Its reputation has been hard to build but would be easy to destroy. Let’s hope that come February, the CBO will be able to toast its anniversary under the leadership of an independent director.  

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