Congressional Scorekeeper Takes Aim at Budget Band-Aids

Congressional Budget Office director Keith Hall speaks at a Jan. 24 hearing concerning oversight of his agency.

WASHINGTON (CN) – A cynical shred of common ground emerged at an oversight hearing of the Congressional Budget Office as both parties agreed Wednesday that the Senate’s budget process is broken.

Though this morning’s hearing was ostensibly called to address transparency at the CBO and the timeliness of its cost estimates, CBO director Keith Hall explained over 80 minutes of testimony that the budget impasse has hamstrung his agency.

“We will be able to make significant progress on our plans to boost responsiveness and transparency if we receive funding for fiscal year 2018 within the range that the Senate and House Appropriations Committees have recommended,” Hall said.

“If we receive the funding available under the continuing resolution currently in effect for this year,” Hall added, “we will make less progress.”

Under the latest continuing resolution, one of four short-term spending bills passed by Congress to avert a government shutdown, the CBO is operating on a budget of only $46.2 million. This stands in contrast to the appropriations recommended by the Senate and the House of $48.1 million and $48.5 million, respectively.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a Jan. 24 hearing concerning oversight of the Congressional Budget Office.

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., voiced frustration about the predicament, noting that the government is on its fourth short-term funding package, 116 days into the fiscal year.

“I think before we do oversight of the CBO, it might be a good idea to do oversight of this committee,” said Sanders. “It might be a good idea for the Budget Committee to actually produce a budget.”

A nonpartisan research group, the CBO’s work involves scoring bills proposed by Congress for overall impact before there is a vote.

Though members of both parties have complained that the CBO doesn’t work as quickly as it needs to, Hall said the agency could respond quicker to congressional requests for cost estimates if allowed to hire eight new staff members in 2019.

The CBO would like to add another 20 staff members by 2021, Hall added, but operating under the continuing resolution will force the CBO to curtail crucial hiring.

Hall noted that the agency produced 740 cost estimates last year, as well as 86 analytic reports and 128 scorekeeping tabulations.

“Many of the cost estimates were produced under very tight time constraints and required extraordinary efforts by our staff to meet legislative deadlines,” Hall said.

Some of those estimates were produced in response to Republican efforts to repeal and replace the federal health care law put in place by former President Barack Obama.

The White House slammed the agency repeatedly when the CBO estimated that the various GOP replacement bills would cause millions to lose health care coverage.

Questioning the accuracy of the CBO’s research methods and the assumptions used by its staff, the White House noted that prior CBO estimates of health care enrollment significantly missed the mark. In contrast to the CBO’s estimate when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, that 21 million would be enrolled in the exchanges by 2016, only about 10 million people had signed up by then.

Hall noted that the CBO was much closer on its spending estimates for the federal health care law. Though its enrollment estimate was off, he said that the CBO got closer than others to the ultimate figure.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to estimate these things,” Hall said.

The response failed to satisfy Sen. David Perdue, a Democrat from Georgia.

“That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” Perdue said.

The CBO has built its authority and credibility in the nation’s capitol on its objective, nonpartisan research, but some Republicans questioned the impartiality of the agency when the CBO scored Obamacare repeal proposals.

White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney suggested in a May 31 interview with the Washington Examiner, for example that the CBO wrongly assumed that people would voluntarily forego Medicaid coverage.

“That’s just not defensible,” Mulvaney said at the time. “It’s almost as if they went into it and said, ‘OK, we need this score to look bad. How do we do it?'”

Hall was asked Wednesday to defend the CBO’s estimate that millions would lose Medicaid coverage under the various repeal proposals.

“It makes no sense to me,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin.

Sen. Ron Johnson grills the chief of the Congressional Budget Office about poor scores the agency gave various proposals put forward by the GOP to replace the federal health care law.

Hall explained that the estimates of a reduction in Medicaid coverage were tied to the end of the Medicaid expansion program contained in the proposed legislation. People who would have had coverage under the Affordable Care Act because of the expansion program would lose it in the next 10 years as it got phased out, Hall said.

Sanders, meanwhile, focused much of his questioning on having the CBO chief confirm the accuracy of the agency’s estimates that millions could lose health insurance under the GOP health care proposals.

The CBO estimated that 23 million would lose health care after 10 years under the American Health Care Act, which passed the House last year. Hall confirmed that estimate to Sanders.

“So in other words,” Sanders asked, “what CBO did is made the obvious conclusion that when you substantially cut funding on health care low and behold people lose their health insurance?

“I hope that some of my colleagues would refrain from attacking the agency because the results that you produce are not something that they’re comfortable with,” Sanders said.

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