Demote the CBO
Why ditching Congress' independent scorekeepers wouldn't be so terrible
Since its creation in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office has been the official scorekeeper for government legislation. It projects the effects that bills would have on the economy and the federal budget. It's basically the referee in partisan congressional debates.
For the Republican effort to repeal ObamaCare, the CBO's role has been devastating. The latest version of TrumpCare, still under debate in the Senate, would leave 22 million more Americans uninsured by 2026, according to the agency's assessment. So the GOP may well solve this dilemma in the most straightforward of ways: By demoting the ref.
It's actually not the worst idea.
That's not to say it isn't a flagrant power grab on the part of the GOP. Senate Republicans only just updated its TrumpCare bill with new provisions, to shore up a 51-vote majority, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants a vote as quickly as possible, and it may take the CBO a few weeks to update its score. More importantly, there's no reason to think this new score will be any less brutal than the last one. So a Republican Senate aide recently informed Independent Journal Review that the GOP might just have the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — a White House agency — score the bill instead.
The Hill reported much the same: “I think we'll get other feedback from HHS, [the White House Office of Management and Budget], and others" who can model the effects of TrumpCare, said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). The gambit "has been floated during negotiations but not agreed to yet," according to the reports.
The news immediately set off a firestorm among liberal policy writers on social media: Sidelining the CBO would be "unprecedented," and the new precedent it set would be "terrible." "Republicans really might break every norm" in their pursuit of what they want. It would be "some serious broken-country s--t."
On the one hand, I can sympathize with the anger: As far as the Republicans' motives go, this is a naked attempt to engineer a score that's more politically palatable.
On the other hand, the liberal freakout also implicitly assumes that having the CBO as the singular referee for congressional legislation is a good institutional norm that should be preserved. It's "one of the last remnants of a time when Democrats and Republicans in Washington enjoyed some semblance of shared reality," said Jordan Weissmann. But democracy is a free-for-all of competing values that all people will never ultimately agree on. This experience of shared reality was just a fluke.
So I think we should be open to downgrading the CBO's role as the singular referee. Just having an executive agency like HHS do the scoring instead is problematic, since HHS ultimately answers to the president. But having the CBO, the White House, an institution of the congressional minority, and outside think tanks all contributing scores would go a long way toward equalizing the playing field.
In terms of the officials it's staffed by, the CBO is a scrupulously bipartisan institution. But it's still just one institution that can only do one score. So whenever it does a score, it has to settle on a particular methodology. And as the CBO staff is only human, that methodology could be wrong.
For instance, the CBO's score of TrumpCare predicts 15 million more people will be uninsured as soon as 2018, thanks to the disappearance of the individual mandate. Plenty of serious policy thinkers, including people on the left, think that dramatically overstates the effect of the mandate on insurance rates. (Of course, the effects of killing the mandate won't be a zero increase in uninsurance either, and millions will still lose coverage thanks to TrumpCare's draconian spending cuts.)
Other instances of the CBO's possible fallibility cut in the opposite partisan direction: One purpose of ObamaCare, for instance, was to reform insurance markets so that health-care prices could be forced down. So far, that gambit seems to be working. But to project ObamaCare's budget effect, the CBO had to come up with some way to project future health-care prices. What they did at the time was basically look at how prices had grown in the recent past, and then project that they'd keep growing the same way. So the CBO's methodology implicitly assumed ObamaCare would fail to contain health-care prices.
There's another wrinkle as well: One reason the GOP needs a score of TrumpCare is because it's using reconciliation to pass the bill through the Senate. It's a procedural move that allows for simple 51-vote majorities, rather than the 60-vote supermajorities usually required to get around the filibuster. But bills can only be passed by reconciliation if they're deficit-neutral or deficit-reducing outside a 10-year window. Traditionally, the CBO has provided that determination. But apparently, the Senate Budget Committee chairman (a Republican) could pick another score if he saw fit.
If picking non-CBO scores ever became the norm, that could vastly expand use of reconciliation: The party in power could shop for the most favorable score. That, in turn, would undermine the filibuster's supermajority requirement. Which is also freaking people out.
But the filibuster is a terrible procedural norm that short-circuits the functioning of democracy. And the existence of reconciliation at all rests on the extremely destructive assumption that deficit reduction is always and everywhere a good thing. The Republicans are running around threatening to blow up all sorts of long-established procedural norms in American lawmaking. And their reasons are brazenly self-serving. But this also obscures the fact that a lot of those norms deserve to be blown up!
Unfortunately, more leftwing and more responsible players in our politics lacked either the insight or the courage to act when they were in power. That's left the job of breaking down the walls to the more rightwing players that currently control government.
There's a better option. Right now, the agency doesn't share the guts of its models with the public. So one idea is for the CBO to go "open source" — show everyone the full methodology by which it arrives at its scores. Then other groups, think tanks, government agencies, economists, and more could provide criticism and feedback, which the CBO could then learn from and possibly adopt. The agency would remain the central referee scoring bills for procedural purposes. But its work would be engaged in a back-and-forth with the public, rather than just making one-way declarations from on high.
Assuming Republicans don't just blow up all our procedural norms, this would be the gentler and more prudent way to reform the CBO.