Bygone Directors Defend Congressional Budget Office at House

WASHINGTON (CN) – Incensed by the recent criticisms of the Trump administration, a former leader of the Congressional Budget Office urged Congress on Wednesday to keep the agency nonpartisan.

“The thing I found unprecedented was for an administration, a sitting OMB director, to criticize the CBO in very, very harsh terms, and to name in the public staff members of CBO and criticize them,” former CBO Director Doug Holtz-Eakin said Wednesday, referring to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney. “I think that’s way over the line, unacceptable, and I told Mr. Mulvaney that.”

Mulvaney criticized the CBO multiple times during the Republican attempt to repeal the federal health care law last year, when the agency issued several reports finding the proposals would result in millions of people not having health insurance. At one point, Mulvaney suggested the time for congressional reliance on the agency has “probably come and gone,” and later criticized an agency staffer who worked in the Clinton administration as politically biased.

Holtz-Eakin made the comments on Wednesday at a hearing before the House Budget Committee conducting oversight of the CBO and examining ways to improve its interactions with Congress.

With a focus on improvements, the hearing was the fifth in a line of meetings on the subject, but included acknowledgment by lawmakers and witnesses of the recent criticisms Republicans have lobbed at the agency.

Alice Rivlin, the CBO’s first director, told the committee that politicians on both sides have criticized the CBO’s findings for as long as the agency has existed. He emphasized, however, that the agency’s nonpartisan scores have been essential in informing lawmakers of the fiscal impact of their decisions.

“That’s part of the furniture,” Rivlin said. “I would just ignore that and keep supporting the CBO and using it and asking it questions about the basis for its estimates.”

Both former directors commended the committee for holding oversight hearings, a first for the agency Congress established in 1974. They pushed back when Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., accused the Republican-controlled committee of holding the hearing to denigrate the CBO over its poor scores for the GOP health care bills.

“I don’t think that the committee has, in general, been out to get CBO,” Rivlin said. “They’ve been trying to understand what CBO does and how they do it and how it can be improved.”

While they both defended their former agency, Rivlin and Holtz-Eakin acknowledged its interaction with Congress could be better. Both urged lawmakers, some of whom expressed displeasure with the opacity of the CBO’s analyses, to tell the agency what additional information they would like to see in its reports.

But Holtz-Eakin reminded the committee that CBO analysts often work on a tight timeline, making it difficult for the agency to give lawmakers as much information as they would like. He said this is especially true for its scores of specific pieces of legislation.

“At least for me, in the moment when you’re trying to do all this stuff and the legislation is moving, you don’t have time to write the best treatise on all the different aspects of complex legislation,” Holtz-Eakin said.

Rivlin suggested the committee could ensure lawmakers get their questions answered by providing proper funding for the CBO, but also encouraged those with questions about how the CBO reached a conclusion to simply ask.

“I would say just do it,” Rivlin said. “Get in touch with the director, talk to him, ask questions and hold hearings like this one. But the main thing is just keep asking CBO what was the basis for that estimate and can you tell us a little more about it.”

In a statement after the hearing, Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said the hearings have given the committee a valuable window into the challenges facing the CBO and clarified some steps lawmakers can take to ease its work.

“Since its inception more than 40 years ago, CBO has not undergone a comprehensive review,” Womack said. “This series of hearings finally fulfilled this committee’s duty for proper oversight and broadened our understanding of CBO’s work and challenges.”

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