Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf is doing a great job informing the economic policy debate in a rigorous and unbiased matter. Dr. Elmendorf’s background suggests a different perspective on economic policy from my own. This is unsurprising, given that he was chosen by the chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND). He worked at the Fed (a strong signal of first-quality), and in the Clinton Council of Economic Advisers and Treasury Department. Before coming to CBO as director, he was a scholar at the Brookings Institution and worked with the left-side Hamilton Project founded by Robert Rubin.

Dr. Elmendorf is serving admirably as an impartial referee, and is contributing substantially to the economic policy debate.When CBO is at the top of its game, they don’t just produce tables. They explain without bias what the tables of numbers mean.

CBO works for Congress. If you’re writing a bill, you need a “score” from CBO. Working with their sister tax organization, the Joint Tax Committee staff, they will tell you how much spending and taxes will increase or decrease based on your legislative language. If the budget effects of your bill make it inconsistent with the budget resolution passed each year by the Congress, then your bill faces difficult procedural hurdles, and its chance of legislative success declines significantly.

Most CBO staff have advanced degrees, often in economics, public policy, or some specific policy specialty like health or taxes. Theirs is a world of spreadsheets, legislative language, and angry Members of Congress and Congressional staff. Often the CBO staff understand a bill better than the author. CBO staff get barked at a lot by Members of Congress and their staff.

As a government institution, it’s not surprising that CBO staff on average lean a little left. The best evidence of this is that when CBO staff leave, they are far more likely to work for a Democratic member of Congress, or for a liberal think tank like Brookings, the Urban Institute, or the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

At the same time, CBO’s reputation as an institution is predicated on its nonpartisanship, lack of institutional bias, and intellectual rigor. I think that, on the whole, they do as good a job as any of setting aside their personal policy preferences and fulfilling this critical role of an unbiased referee.

CBO is at its best when it is nonpartisan: they say what the evidence demonstrates, no matter who it upsets. This is most difficult for the Director when it upsets the Congressional majority that gave him his job, especially since he is usually of the same political party as they.

Sometimes CBO strays and tries to be bipartisan, rather than nonpartisan. That’s like a referee who tries to even out the game by balancing a bad call he made earlier for one team, by making a bad call now to benefit the other team. I believe the referee should call the play as he sees it, no matter who it upsets, and no matter what the score or history. If the ref makes 5 calls in a row that upset one team, that may not be bias. It may just be that the other team is fouling a lot, or that they have a coach that likes to hector the ref. Some past CBO directors have tried to balance the politics so they get equal heat from both sides. They do this by taking arguments they know are weak and including them to please (or mitigate the anger of) the Member of Congress to whom they’re delivering other bad news. I believe this kind of behavior reflects poorly on the institution. It seems largely absent now.

One of the most effective and best-known CBO directors was Dr. Robert Reischauer in the mid-90s. Put in place by Democrats, he made some hard (and, in my view, correct) budget scoring calls that infuriated the Clinton Administration as it tried to enact the Clinton Health Plan. Dr. Reischauer was publicly savaged by Congressional Democratic Leaders. I imagine the private pressure was even more intense.

Dr. Elmendorf faces a similar situation this year as health care has risen to the top of the Administration’s and the Congressional majority’s agenda. CBO’s rulings are critical to their chances of success, and the pressure already being brought to bear is intense. I have heard reports of specific meetings within the past few weeks in which senior Members of Congress have been directly pressuring Dr. Elmendorf to cut them some slack on scoring. He has withstood that pressure, and the public work CBO is providing is first-rate.

I say this even though I don’t agree with everything they’re producing on this topic. I disagree with some of the judgment calls they are making, in particular, on some of the details of whether “health exchanges” should be counted in the budget. But I think they’re being fair about it. In my first job as a Congressional staffer, I was the health and retirement analyst for the Senate Budget Committee staff under Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM). I have worked on health budget policy for 15 years, and think I’ve got a pretty good nose for sniffing out biased estimates and analysis. It is now remarkably and admirably absent.

Over the past few weeks, I have been getting a lot of new readers among Congressional staff (from both sides of the aisle). Welcome. For those of you without a lot of experience dealing with CBO, I’d like to suggest some tips for how to work well with the CBO and maximize your chances of getting a score that doesn’t destroy your chances of legislative success:

  • Give them a bill to score, or at a minimum a highly detailed policy spec. The more precise you are, the better your score will be. CBO takes a skeptic’s eye to ambiguity and will often not give you the benefit of the doubt when you’re unclear.
  • Read what they have written on your bill’s topic before you talk with them. You’ll be smarter, and you’ll get more respect from the analyst for having done your homework.
  • Plan ahead. Way ahead. Each analyst and branch has a queue of work. If you’re not on the staff of the committee of jurisdiction, the Budget Committee staff, or in leadership, you will start pretty far back in that queue. Live with it, and plan for it.
  • Ask your friendly neighborhood Budget Committee staffer for help.
  • Talk with the analyst who is scoring your bill before, during, and after they have worked on it. Ask them if there are parts of your bill that are unclear. See if you can get a discussion going, so you know early if their estimate is headed in a direction that is devastating for you. If it is, ask them to stop so you can fix your bill. See if you can save them time by not making them estimate something, and then starting from scratch.
  • Do your homework, and share with the analysts working on your bill. If you have a good study, data or information, share it with CBO, especially if this is a new issue. If you have an expert, set up a meeting with CBO. They will talk to anyone with data and good arguments.
  • CBO staff are paid not to care about whether your bill is good policy or bad policy. Don’t be offended. They are paid only to figure out its effects on the federal budget.
  • Don’t try to shoot the messenger. It’s usually counterproductive.
  • I always had more success asking CBO analysts questions, than trying to change their minds. I would try to figure out how they approach a score, and why they thought my bill would produce the budget effect that it did. Sometimes you get scored with a big budgetary effect for something that is tangential to your core purpose. The better you understand this, the more you can adapt to get your score down. CBO analysts generally react much better to incisive questions than they do to screaming.
  • I always found I had much better success by being respectful and polite than a jerk. I don’t think it directly affected the analysis they produced for me, but it did get me better response times, and more useful information that wasn’t in the formal written estimate. Besides, if you act like a jerk, then you are a jerk. Who wants that?

Dr. Elmendorf and the CBO staff face a test similar to that faced by CBO under Dr. Reischauer during debate on the Clinton Health Plan. They have so far withstood the pressure with aplomb, but the real pressure is just beginning.

(photo credit: z04b_57 Growling Gizmo Dog, Vancouver 2005 by CanadaGood)