Congress regularly weighs policy reforms that affect our national economic mooring for decades, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is limited in its official scoring to a 10-year budget horizon. It’s time to give the agency tasked with estimating the cost of Congressional policy proposals the resources it needs to present long-term budget projections to Capitol Hill.
A bill introduced last week by Reps. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) would do just that, by creating a new division within CBO tasked solely with long-term budget scoring. The bill is particularly timely as the House recently passed budget-reform proposals that would require CBO to undertake additional long-term analyses.
CBO operates according to rules established by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974, and the agency has long made only 10-year projections for official scorekeeping purposes. But Congress often needs information about the long-term impact of a policy change. Policies that were adopted (or not adopted) decades ago certainly affected the economy and the federal budget today in profound ways.
For example, the Hatch-Waxman legislation that created the modern generic drug industry in 1984 saved purchasers $8 billion–$10 billion in 1994; by 2012, annual savings had ballooned to $217 billion. The 10-year budget window certainly did not capture savings of this magnitude. Likewise, policies ranging from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 to welfare reform in 1996 have had significant budget and economic impacts well beyond the conventional 10-year budget window. Looking forward, CBO projects that federal health care spending will rise from 4.9 percent of the economy this year to 13.8 percent in 2088. A long-range budget analysis of any reform proposal would allow policymakers to consider how legislation might affect this projection in the coming decades.
Under the Ribble-Pocan bill, if the data exist to guide the work, CBO would be able to inform Congress about the impact a proposal would have on the economy over the long term. While this certainly won’t fix the partisan gridlock over economic policy decisions, it can go a long way toward ensuring that policymakers have the clear, long-term, nonpartisan budget analyses they need to make good decisions. Given how this longer view might have affected the choices made, or not made, on Capitol Hill in the 40 years since CBO was created, this is a proposal worth considering.
Brill is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was formerly the chief economist and policy director to the House Ways and Means Committee.