Live By The CBO, Die By The CBO

I loved the conclusion of Suzy Khimm’s piece about the clout of the Congressional Budget Office:

Such power has led some to question whether the CBO has an undue amount of influence on Washington politics and policymaking. “You know you’re not God,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told Elmendorf during a 2009 congressional hearing. But some observers think those complaints say more about the frustration of dealing with an honest agency than about the agency itself. “It’s easy to say ‘the CBO made me do it,’ but they’re just providing information,” says Philip Joyce, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland and former CBO staffer. “People can use that information however they want to.”

Elmendorf, for his part, agrees. Whether legislation passes “depends on the judgment of members of Congress,” he told The Postin 2009. “We’ll provide information that helps them make that judgment. But the decisions are theirs.”

That’s just right. And part of what’s happened over the past few years is that I think people have started using the CBO wrong. The way this ought to work, roughly speaking, is that members of Congress frame a policy that does what they want to do. Then the CBO scores it. If the score ends up showing that the likely consequences of the legislation will somehow be wildly different than the legislators intended, of course the score should be cause for revision. It’s possible, for example, that a given tweak to benefit eligibility for some program or other would turn out to be much more costly than anticipated.

But what we’ve instead tended to see happen is for legislators to start with an arbitrary scoring target, typically a round number — $900 billion, $1.3 trillion, whatever — and then start writing the bill. Then if the CBO comes back with a number that’s slightly different from the target — $907 billion, $1.3 trillion but it’ll take 126 months instead of 120 — they go back and re-write the bill for basically no reason. The problem here is that the target itself was totally arbitrary, and the forecast from the CBO is full of uncertainty. There’s no reason for Boehner to be putting forward a bill whose cuts are more front-loaded than he himself thought was desirable on Monday just because the CBO scores come out somewhat differently. But that’s on him, not on the CBO.