The Corner

Fiscal Policy

CBO Warns It’s ‘Unclear’ When It Can Finish Score of Democrats’ Reconciliation Bill

The west side of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., August 5, 2021. (Brent Buterbaugh/National Review)

Democrats have insisted time and again that their reconciliation bill will not add to the debt. The Congressional Budget Office, however, has not scored the full reconciliation bill, so we just have to take the Democrats’ word for it.

Contrary to their promises, the Democrats’ own reconciliation instructions allow them to add up to $1.75 trillion to the debt. The reconciliation instructions are where Congress essentially says, “Here’s how much each committee is allowed to spend, and we’ll work out the details later.” They are currently in the process of working out the details and arriving at final legislation text. That final text will then need to be voted on, and that’s what goes to the president if it passes Congress.

Scoring the details of each committee’s proposal is a very time-consuming process, as CBO director Phillip Swagel explains in a letter to Mitch McConnell today. There are 13 House committees, each of which produces recommendations that need to be scored. “CBO has completed cost estimates for the recommendations of four of those committees,” Swagel writes. “We expect to finish estimates for the recommendations of another two committees this week.”

That would put them at almost halfway to a complete cost estimate by the end of this week. Recall that Democrats wanted to pass the reconciliation bill last week. With Obamacare, we had to pass the bill to find out what’s in it. With this reconciliation bill, apparently, we have to pass the bill to find out what it costs.

What are the results of those first four cost estimates? All four say Democrats’ proposals would add to the deficit. Not only that: Three of them add more to the deficit than is allowed in the reconciliation instructions. So not only is it not fully paid for so far, it’s even worse than Democrats’ own reconciliation instructions permit. It’s no wonder they wanted to pass this bill last week without getting the full cost estimate.

The CBO should just hurry up, right? It’s not that simple, though, for reasons that Swagel explains. The CBO is required by law to not only provide cost estimates, but also to provide technical assistance to congressional committees in crafting legislation. “To supply information when it is most useful to the Congress, CBO must balance the competing goals of providing technical assistance when legislation is being developed and completing cost estimates for legislation that has been approved,” Swagel writes. “When time is limited, in accordance with Congressional priorities, CBO must sometimes focus more on providing technical assistance than on completing cost estimates. That is currently the situation: The agency is prioritizing technical assistance to committees for reconciliation legislation that they are developing, which has delayed cost estimates for legislation that those same committees have approved.”

This isn’t the CBO calling an audible or slow-walking these cost estimates on purpose. It’s not like there are 1,000 people waiting to do cost estimates. The entire agency has only about 260 staff members, and not all of them do cost estimates. Of the ones who do, they’re specialized into certain areas, so there are only a small handful of people who can advise committees, do research for members, assist in crafting legislation, and do cost estimates for each of the 13 parts of the bill.

The CBO is a very well-structured institution for the purposes of accuracy and non-partisanship. (For example, it is required to regularly report the errors in its past estimates so it wouldn’t be able to get away with being biased to one party.) It is not well-structured for speed. That is all by design. Its actions are prescribed by law, and its behavior is predictable.

Democrats and Republicans alike know how this process works. By making the reconciliation bill so complex and keeping it in flux, Democrats knew it would be harder for the CBO to give it a total cost estimate. In the meantime, they can run around telling everyone that it’s free.

If they had had the votes last week, the strategy probably would have worked. They didn’t, and the more complete the cost-estimate picture becomes, the more absurd their “costs $0” argument looks. Not only is it absurd for the obvious reason that paying for something does not make it free, but they haven’t even demonstrated that it’s paid for at all, and the CBO estimates so far have said that it’s not.

Swagel writes that it is still “unclear” when the CBO will complete a full cost estimate of the reconciliation bill — largely because no final bill even exists. Don’t expect Democrats to wait for an estimate before voting, though. If they’re so confident their legislation will be paid for, they should welcome a CBO score confirming that. Racing against the CBO does not portray confidence.

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