Critical Condition

Cliff Notes

I’ll admit it. I didn’t want to start reading the serious parts of the health-reform bill Speaker Pelosi unveiled today (HR 3962; text here) until the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis came out.

The CBO work product is the Cliff Notes version of the House bill. CBO could have gotten away with a one-page cover letter and the tables that show the numbers. After all, it is CBO’s numbers that provide the fodder for the ensuing bombardment of numbers about the exact size and scope of this audacious undertaking. We can be thankful that CBO provides more. CBO’s 15-page letter describes the whole thing. This Cliff Notes version provides a mental framework upon which one can drape the abundant fabric of the legislative language. 

That said, there is a lot that CBO doesn’t say. Compare the scope of CBO’s analysis of the 2009 round of health-care reform to what it had to say in 1994 about the Clinton proposals.

Back in 1994 there was at least two months from the time that the Clinton administration sent its legislative language to Capitol Hill and CBO provided its analysis. This time around it looks like there was less than 24 hours between when CBO saw final language for some provisions and when it provided its analysis. Perhaps the most notable absence is the set of issues gathered into the final chapter of the 1994 report, “Other Considerations.” There CBO named what had to be assumed about the government’s ability to make the Clinton plan work. CBO had assumed in its analysis that everything would work as asserted, but then stepped back from those assumptions to examine their reasonableness. The president’s insistence that health-care-reform legislation pass this year leaves that analysis for after the bill is signed. 

– Hanns Kuttner is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute.