Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About The Congressional Budget Office


If you're following the news this year, you have heard the name of the Congressional Budget Office. They're the people who said, for example, that a Republican health bill would leave 23 million fewer Americans with insurance. It's easy to hear the CBO mentioned often in the news without quite hearing exactly what it is and where it came from. So let's ask Cokie to analyze the office that analyzes the financial effect of legislation. Cokie Roberts takes your questions about how Washington works.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: This is a budget office, I guess we should mention, that's been around since the 1970s. The first director was Alice Rivlin. And years ago, she described the creation of this office as a major reform.


ALICE RIVLIN: It was a drastic and controversial change in the way Congress and the rest of the government went about its budgetary business. Many had high hopes for it.

INSKEEP: Drastic reform. So what did Congress do about budgeting beforehand, and what was the reform?

ROBERTS: Well, the reform came at the end of the Nixon era, when Congress was trying to rein in what they considered an imperial presidency. And they passed that budget act over the president's veto. And among other things, it created an independent arm for congressional analysis, the Congressional Budget Office.

INSKEEP: OK, so that leads to our first listener question.

BEN MASS: This is Ben Mass from Storm Lake, Iowa. Who are the members of the Congressional Budget Office, and how does the CBO collect the data they use for their assessments?


ROBERTS: According to the website, about 235 staff members and they're basically supernerds. They're economists and public policy analysts with graduate degrees.

INSKEEP: Is that an official federal position, by the way, supernerds? Is that in the civil service code?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) It is.

INSKEEP: Anyway, go on. Go on. I'm sorry.

ROBERTS: It is. It's a good one. It should be there. The current director of the CBO is Keith Hall. He was formerly the head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He's a Republican appointee. He's considered a thoroughgoing professional. And they get their data from all over - from government agencies, from statistical bureaus. From legislative resources. They are deeply dedicated to transparency. You can go on their website and, if you really want to, read all of their reports and see the methodology.

INSKEEP: OK. So they're not supposed to be politicians. They're supposed to be numbers experts who explain why they do what they do. And that leads to a question about something they have done.

CARRIE WELBAUM: My name is Carrie Welbaum, and I live in San Diego, Calif. And my question is - when was another CBO score as high-profile and damaging to a bill's chances as the AHCA score was, and did that bill ultimately become law?

INSKEEP: She's referring to the American Health Care Act, this Republican health care bill. An earlier version was destroyed by a CBO finding.

ROBERTS: Isn't it fascinating that everybody knows about this, though? And the first time that was really true was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when Alice Rivlin was head of the CBO. There were big differences between the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget, and those projections from the administration were dubbed the Rosy Scenario. And Rosy was considered the most important person in the administration.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: Everybody paid close attention to scoring and estimates. Those of us covering it could tell you every line item in the budget. And so some individual bills had some controversy over the scoring. But it was somewhat easier to calculate things like tax bills than how humans will respond to something as personal as health care.

INSKEEP: And that does lead to a question from Tahir Bell who asks via Twitter - what is the track record of the CBO? Are they right or wrong most of the time? - because, Cokie, they're making a prediction here. Predictions can be wrong.

ROBERTS: That's right. And the further out they have projected, the more wrong they're likely to be. But there are remarkably few instances of its critics being able to point out where the CBO has been wrong. Yes, they got the number of enrollees in Obamacare wrong, and that was a big one. But they got a lot else under Obamacare right. It's a huge amount of product that comes out of the CBO, not just the big-ticket stuff like the analysis of the president's budget but also cost estimates on almost all the legislation passed by congressional committees. The CBO also has lots of budget options for things like bringing down the deficit - never makes a recommendation, just tells you what the options are, and you as the policymakers can make the decisions.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks for the information about the people who give Congress information.

ROBERTS: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can ask Cokie yourself how government and politics work. Tweet us using the hashtag #AskCokie, or email us at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.