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Politics & Government

Former CBO Head: Attacks On Scoring Agency Mission And Integrity 'Unacceptable'


There are just eight former directors of the Congressional Budget Office. On Friday, all of them signed a letter to leaders of Congress.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: (Reading) We write to express our strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency's role in the legislative process.

SIEGEL: That's Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as the director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2003 to 2005. He's a Republican, and he's now head of the American Action Forum, a center-right policy institute. What's at issue here is how the Congressional Budget Office has scored Republican health care bills, how it estimates how many people would be left uninsured and how much it would cost the government. Doug Holtz-Eakin, why did you and your fellow past CBO directors choose to write this letter now? What worries you?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: It's fine, in my view, to disagree with the CBO on the substance of a score, on the research that goes behind how people choose their health insurance policies or the likely pace of medical inflation. It's not OK, in my view, to attack the professionalism, the integrity and the mission of the CBO. And in recent weeks we've seen those kinds of attacks, and we thought it was time to simply say it's unacceptable.

SIEGEL: The Congressional Budget Office began in 1975. And President Trump's budget director - he's part of the executive branch of government, Mick Mulvaney - in an interview with the Washington Examiner said the day of the CBO has probably come and gone. What do you say to that?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think the CBO exists because the Office of Management and Budget had a monopoly on budgetary information and the Congress didn't like it. And so far from the day having come and gone, the CBO has a great future.

SIEGEL: The letter that you sent to congressional leaders says this - unfortunately, even nonpartisan and high-quality analysis cannot always generate accurate estimates. What did you have in mind when you wrote that?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: The purpose of scoring is to be able to rank the budget cost of different bills. So if you're comparing a House and a Senate bill, you have to know which is going to cost the taxpayer more. And the primary objective is to do those apples-to-apples comparisons. The CBO does try to do the best projection of the cost and have it be as accurate. But the reality is that you're never going to hit the number if only because the laws themselves get changed. And so the most important part of scoring is really not did you get the number right for 2021 - when that year shows up almost certainly it'll be wrong. The question is, did you give every bill a fair hearing and rank it equally?

SIEGEL: I've heard two versions of the CBO's scoring of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. One is that the CBO got it so wrong that we shouldn't take its scores of new health care bills all that seriously. The other is that the CBO got something wrong, which was how many employers would stop providing insurance at work and how many people therefore would move into the exchanges, but that it got right how many people would still be left uninsured. Who's more right in that discussion?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: I actually think of it very differently. The CBO was asked to score a bill, but which Affordable Care Act did we actually get, that bill or the one after melted down and gave that the worst brand in history, or after the Obama administration decided not to enforce the employer mandate for a couple of years? The law that's passed is not the law we saw. There was no way the CBO could, quote, "get it right."

SIEGEL: Of course, one can say in that case a big law, once it's in effect for a few years, is invariably going to be different from the bill that was presented in Congress. Does that go to the question of the effectiveness of CBO scoring?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: No, because the question is, when that big law was being considered, how did it look compared to other proposals for a big law? If you're going to change laws after the fact, you're never going to get the forecast right. But you should be able to get them ranked right so that Congress can pick the one they like the best at the moment.

SIEGEL: When you became director of the Congressional Budget Office, there were doubts raised. You know, would Doug Holtz-Eakin be a supply side partisan who wouldn't call it straight? People generally agreed after you'd been in that job for a while that they were wrong, that this is an office that's remained reasonably nonpartisan. Is that in danger right now in the current mood in Washington?

HOLTZ-EAKIN: It was one of the reasons I was interested in signing the letter. I was the first Congressional Budget Office director to go directly from the White House to the CBO. And there were frankly legitimate concerns on the part of Democrats about whether I was a partisan hack or whether I was there to do the job correctly. I always felt I could do the job correctly. And I think that proved that even in a town where people have their political beliefs you should respect the quality, the professionalism and the integrity of a nonpartisan CBO. And to see people question that again really troubled me.

SIEGEL: Former director of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Thanks for talking with us.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.