Pick your estimate.

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg

Can Republicans Make the CBO Toe Their Line?

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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Republicans nominated the economist Keith Hall to lead the Congressional Budget Office. Hall served in several government jobs during Republican administrations, including a stint as chief economist for President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The CBO is important -- but only to the extent that Congress cares about what it says. Lawmakers can always ignore its reports it if they wish.

The big debate so far has been about “dynamic scoring,” which involves including a projection of the effects of legislation on economic growth in any estimate of a bill's cost. Those who support dynamic scoring, largely Republicans, are impatient with the modest effects that non-hackish economists project when assessing tax cuts, for example.

In any case, a party that doesn’t care about federal budget deficits will never be constrained by what the CBO says. That’s the real lesson of the dynamic scoring fight. Republicans, for all their rhetoric (especially when a Democrat is in the White House), are fairly indifferent to deficits. What they care about is cutting taxes, cutting spending on programs they don’t think the government should be running, and increasing spending in other areas (the military, border security and subsidies for some businesses). If that path leads to wider deficits, so be it; or, more precisely, Republicans seem happy to cook the numbers to make it appear that the deficit will fall. Thus dynamic scoring.

There’s simply no way to look at the federal policy history of the last 40 years or so without concluding that Democrats care a lot about federal budget deficits and Republicans don’t.  Sure, Republicans still seem trapped in the rhetoric of balanced budgets (see the Republican War on Budgeting), but that just doesn’t drive their behavior.

So either Keith Hall will fudge the numbers and stay popular with congressional Republicans, or he’ll be a straight shooter and have his estimates ignored and his job will be in jeopardy.

  1. That's not a criticism. Much of the media treats balanced budgets as inherently a good thing; I don't agree. On the other hand, I do like building strong policy capacity in Congress, so I dislike fudging the numbers.  

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net