Enemy Number One.

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Republicans' Latest War on Facts

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Dave Weigel at Bloomberg Politics got the scoop: Congressional Republicans have decided to oust the head of the Congressional Budget Office, economist Douglas Elmendorf, despite an impressive show of support for him from many conservative economists.

Why? Because Elmendorf is a straight shooter.

Democrats appointed him, yet various CBO estimates have caused no end of trouble for them. For example, the office refused to score Obamacare cost-cutting measures generously, forcing Democrats to find other offsets if they wanted to claim that the CBO endorsed projected budget-deficit reductions from the Affordable Care Act.  

Republicans don’t want a straight shooter. They want to rig the numbers in favor of tax cuts. So what are they signaling by axing Elmendorf?

  • Republican concerns about federal budget deficits are phony and have been ever since Ronald Reagan endorsed huge tax cuts without finding a way to pay for them. Republicans are the party of tax cuts. Democrats have been the party that values budget-balancing since the late 1980s.
  • Republicans don’t care about facts. Yes, that’s brutal, but deserved. Few theories have had more real-world testing than supply-siders' claims that tax cuts pay for themselves. The outcome is conclusive: They don't. Instead of accepting the results, Republicans choose to get rid of neutral expertise.
  • Republicans in Congress don’t care about Congress. The CBO exists so members of Congress can have reliable information, allowing them to compete on equal terms with the president, who has the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury Department and other data sources. Destroy the CBO, and Congress will either have to rely on the president or on lobbyists or perhaps a Magic Eight Ball. (Is it time for huge tax cuts? “You may rely on it.”) While dumping Elmendorf alone doesn’t destroy CBO, it is a step in that direction. Who is going to work for an agency whose job is getting the results Congressional leaders demand? Serious analysts or partisan hacks?
  • Republicans remain more interested in talking points and symbolic gestures than in policies. It helps to have some neutral experts on board if you're serious about designing an alternative to Obamacare, for example, or to the current immigration system. Are we surprised that no such alternative legislation exists?

I know it’s futile to point it out, but the people who should be the most upset about this are real conservatives. Republicans won a strong victory in November. They should be taking advantage of their majorities to formulate specific policies as well as engaging in tough oversight of executive branch departments and agencies. Instead, they appear more interested in harming the institutional capacity of Congress – just as they did in the 1990s, when the Gingrich Republicans eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment.

Getting rid of the CBO or politicizing it won't produce conservative results. Unless, that is, “conservative” just means “tax cuts for the rich.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net