The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has come under heavy criticism in recent weeks from many Republicans. They complain of inaccuracies in CBO’s analyses of legislation, most recently in the agency’s scores of the various proposed Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace bills. Condemnation of the agency has grown so loud that all eight former CBO directors, from both sides of the aisle, felt it necessary to pen an unprecedented letter to congressional leaders condemning the attacks.
The anti-CBO bluster took a far more ominous turn Monday when Freedom Caucus chairman Representative Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) introduced an amendment to the upcoming budget “minibus” with the stated purpose of abolishing the CBO’s Budget Analyst Division. The amendment reportedly aims to gut CBO of $15 million and 89 of its staffers. Such cuts would equate to a 30 percent decrease in funding and a 38 percent reduction in staff.
The proposed changes don’t stop there. Rather than allow the agency to continue to conduct the independent analyses it has performed since it opened its doors in 1974, Meadows wants to turn the CBO into an “aggregator” of cost-and-benefit scores performed by private think tanks. In other words, Meadows wants the CBO to serve as a middleman and collect scores from nongovernmental organizations, many of which have an admitted ideological leaning, to create a “composite score” on which lawmakers would rely.
Shifting to an aggregator model would fundamentally alter the CBO’s charter and foundational purpose. The agency was created to generate estimates of legislative costs that are independent of the executive branch’s budget shop, the Office of Management and Budget. The CBO was created by Congress, for Congress, so members would no longer be forced to blindly trust the budget numbers provided by the president’s administration.
If legislative cost estimates were outsourced to think tanks, Congress would give up a rare and vital source of internal, independent information. Furthermore, it’s far from clear that think tanks would even have the manpower or the desire to generate scores for the hundreds of pieces of legislation that are reported each year. In fact, the CBO itself has the resources to analyze only about one-tenth of the bills introduced each year.
Of course, there is nothing currently stopping think tanks from producing their own analyses if they choose, and members are always free to use think-tank research to inform their decision-making. More scores from outside entities could even be a valuable addition to debates surrounding legislation. But completely shifting scores to outside organizations, very few of which are staffed with the necessary experts to produce such information, is not a sustainable model.
In fact, it’s not even clear it’s something the think tanks would agree to do. Though Meadows cited four specific think tanks — the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute — as places to whom Congress would turn for scores, it doesn’t appear he had assent from any of these organizations. If private think tanks were to participate so directly in the lawmaking process, they would need to submit to much more significant government oversight than they currently do. They’d have to disclose donor and client lists, as well as impose stringent conflict-of-interest and internal communications standards. The potential for corruption, fraud, or insider trading would otherwise be simply enormous. Think tanks have long have enjoyed academic independence and vibrant First Amendment protections; not many would relish becoming, in effect, regulated utilities on the model of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s oversight of the credit-rating agencies.
Congress is currently at a severe information disadvantage compared with the much larger executive branch.
To be sure, there are reasonable critiques about the accuracy of CBO scores and the quality of the agency’s methods and models. Scholars such as Yuval Levin have innovative ideas for CBO reform, such as having the CBO create an open-source model of each piece of legislation and publish a set of assumptions that outside entities could use to generate their own scores. House Republicans have already had success reforming the CBO to better reflect their priorities, including their 2015 move requiring the agency to engage in “dynamic scoring” of legislation to better take into account the growth effects of tax cuts. The key is that any changes ought to be thoughtful and deliberative, not the result of the CBO being gutted overnight.
Downsizing government is always a popular rallying cry on the political right, but conservatives should be leery of wantonly cutting legislative capacity as a means to achieve smaller government. The reality is that Congress is currently at a severe information disadvantage compared with the much larger executive branch. Where executive-agency employees are often experts in their particular domains, congressmen are generalists who need assistance to master policy debates quickly. Entities such as the CBO, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Research Service are key sources of information for Congress in its effort to check the executive branch. Downsizing the CBO could actually lead to a more unaccountable and sprawling federal government.
The House Freedom Caucus may have real reasons to be frustrated with the CBO, but it is administering the wrong medicine. No entity can function without a brain, and Congress shouldn’t willingly abandon its own.