Should Elmendorf Be Reappointed CBO Chief?

by Michael R. Strain

Gregory Mankiw thinks so. Dr. Mankiw was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, and is a widely respected economist. He acknowledges that “GOP leaders may be tempted to put their own stamp on the Congressional Budget Office,” but argues still that Douglas Elmendorf — a former Fed economist who served in the Clinton administration — should be reappointed when his term as director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) ends in January.

Someone recently said to me that the CBO director is not really a player in the political game. He is more like the referee. That analogy sheds light on why Doug is the right person for the job. What do you want in a good referee? Competence and impartiality. Doug has demonstrated both. He is a superb economist and, over the past six years as CBO director, has shown himself to be scrupulously non-partisan.

I understand that GOP leaders may be tempted to put their own stamp on the Congressional Budget Office. But sometimes the benefits of continuity transcend ideology and political affiliation. Ronald Reagan reappointed Paul Volcker, and Barack Obama reappointed Ben Bernanke, despite the fact that both Fed chairs were initially appointed by a president of the other party. In the same spirit, I would encourage the GOP congressional leaders to reappoint Doug Elmendorf as CBO director.

So does Charles Murray, who weighed in on Twitter, agreeing with Mankiw.

As does AEI economist Alan Viard, who wrote the following today.

Doug, whom I have been privileged to know since we were in graduate school, has done a superlative job in his six years as CBO director. Aided by the agency’s exceptional staff, he has steadfastly challenged both parties’ efforts to evade economic realities, unflappably weathering all of the ensuing criticism. Under Doug’s leadership, CBO has consistently provided insightful economic analysis, including extensive examination of the disincentive effects of tax and spending policies. His integrity is unassailable.

The CBO is widely respected by both Republicans and Democrats, and by economists, and its analysis is taken extremely seriously by the policy community. It is correctly viewed as a truly honest broker, and it is extremely powerful. (Indeed, I wrote an op-ed in February making the point that the CBO under Elmendorf has both helped and hurt the president’s policy initiatives.)

Mankiw, Murray, and Viard  are right to praise Elmendorf. He is, as Dr. Mankiw writes, a superb economist. (And being a solid economist with a Ph.D. should be required to lead an agency that is staffed with many Ph.D. economists and is dedicated to producing economic analysis.) And he deserves much credit for the CBO’s reputation for impartiality during his tenure. Elmendorf has been a great steward of one of our country’s important institutions — he is a public servant of great integrity. A CBO director less dedicated to solid, mainstream, academic, non-partisan analysis could put a large dent in the quality of the CBO’s work and reputation. That would be bad, a very bad outcome indeed.

Even if under a Republican Congress the CBO is to complement its existing analysis with other methods — more transparency, “macrodynamic scoring” — then who better than Dr. Elmendorf to lead the effort?

It has been said that the graveyards are full of indispensable men, and Dr. Elmendorf certainly isn’t the exception. But he is a fantastic CBO director, and the GOP could do much, much worse than to reappoint him.

Count me with Mankiw, Murray, and Viard. Elmendorf for CBO director.

— Michael R. Strain is deputy director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MichaelRStrain.

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