Budget watch: Head of nonprofit watchdog fights with both parties

Budget watch: Head of nonprofit watchdog fights with both parties
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Democrats and Republicans tend to agree that an exploding national debt is bad. But the debt bothers liberals more when the GOP pushes taxes cuts, and conservatives more when Democrats press for increased funding.

That’s where Maya MacGuineas intervenes.

MacGuineas, 49, is president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a fiscal watchdog that has become a go-to source of budgetary analysis in Washington. She says she has few qualms smacking down members of either political party when their budgetary claims enter the realm of fantasy.

“I am definitely beyond left and right — I am a huge political independent,” MacGuineas told The Hill in a recent interview.

She added: “We will always be criticized by both sides. This year, those on the right were probably very frustrated that we thought the tax bill was fiscally irresponsible. Next year, if we move into trying to fix the safety net programs or the big entitlement programs, the left will probably be very frustrated.”

Despite growing up in Washington, MacGuineas did not expect to become a Beltway policy guru. The daughter of a writer and an antitrust lawyer, a young MacGuineas was more intrigued by the idea of uncovering wrongdoing. Inspired by the television series “Moonlighting,” she spent college summers as a licensed private investigator, ferreting out shady dealings on anything from insurance fraud to malfeasance at a hardware store, sometimes armed with a stun gun and a fake badge.

“I actually had a surveillance truck, where I had magnetic stickers that you would switch every day so people wouldn’t notice it was the same truck. I just remember that one of them was ‘Peggy’s Poodle Washing Service.’ Oh my God, did that crack me up,” she recalls with a laugh.

But her economic studies at Northwestern University paved the way to a policy research job at the Brookings Institution. Following an “unfulfilling” stint at PaineWebber on Wall Street, MacGuineas decided it was time to bolster her education with a public policy degree from Harvard University.

The unusual experience that led her down the path of budgetary policy? “Oh boy is this a dorky one,” she admits. It was reading a riveting Budget and Economic Outlook report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). 

The report, she says, was surprisingly well-written, lucid and, most of all, felt refreshingly objective.

“Even then, it started to feel like everybody was coming at something with an angle, and that’s about a million times worse today than it was back then,” she says. “I must be the only person that was like, ‘I was moved by this CBO report.’ ” 

While at Harvard, MacGuineas wrote out a business plan for a budget watchdog nonprofit. But after returning to Washington for a job with the New America Foundation, she discovered that one already existed: the CRFB. 

When the Committee’s outgoing president stepped down, the board offered the role — in 2003, a part-time gig — to MacGuineas. Under her, the group has grown by leaps and bounds, taking on full-time researchers and staff and revving up its outreach operation.

MacGuineas’s views on government borrowing are far from radical, she says. 

“Debt actually plays a critical role in the economy,” MacGuineas says. The first op-ed she ever penned, in an era when the deficit was headed toward zero, focused on the potential dangers that a debt-free government could pose to the market for Treasury bills, a crucial element of the financial system.

Debt is a sound financing option, she argues, for stimulating the economy during a downturn and making investments in infrastructure.

“What was disturbing was when I realized that’s not why we’re borrowing,” she says. “We are borrowing because, just plain and simply, we don’t like paying for things. We actually like to spend a lot of money as a country and we don’t like paying for things.”

MacGuineas sees the budgetary process as broken, a hostage to political whims that leaves economic rationale by the wayside and allows each party to run up the debt for their priorities when they happen to be in power.

Having harder budgetary constraints, she posits, is necessary to force political prioritization. 

“If everything’s free, if you borrow for everything, then let’s do it all,” she exclaims.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — one of the committee’s bipartisan co-chairs, who chaired the House Budget Committee as a congressman — is in full agreement. 

Professional committee staffers on Capitol Hill have become subverted by politics, he says. 

“It’s very discouraging what’s going on today, frankly from both parties,” he says. “Everybody beats their breast with one hand while they’re picking your pocket with the other one.”

Absent a serious course correction, MacGuineas frets, the United States will find itself in a situation where it is a slave to borrowing. 

“You get in a vicious cycle you can’t get out of and it causes a whole lot of pain.” Absent a visible crisis, she adds, a ballooning debt will simply drag on economic growth.

Add that to an aging population and an unruly set of unreformed entitlement programs, and the prospects become bleak.

“What scares me about that is slow growth. A pie that’s not growing as quickly leads to real tension, it leads to real hardship, it leads to real resentment. Not to sound overly ominous, but this country is already starting to fray with a lot of tensions that are coming to the surface,” she says. A dysfunctional economy will only pull people further apart.

Fighting against unsupported political predictions such as that the GOP tax reform passed late last year “will pay for itself” is no easy task, and MacGuineas sees the Committee’s fact-based reports and analyses as its best tools for battling unwarranted borrowing.

“I never thought that there would be such an assault on facts and numbers,” she says. “It frightens me because it reflects something bigger in [the] country, which is that what’s dividing us is becoming stronger than what unites us, and you’re seeing that in budget projections. That’s a sign that there’s something big we have to fix.”

A few decades ago, providing unvarnished facts and analysis to fuel healthy, informed debate may have not been a big deal. But in an age of hyper-partisan spin and “fake news,” it has become rare.

“Today, the tragedy is that there’s only one voice of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility, and Maya MacGuineas and the Committee represent that voice,” Panetta says. 

MacGuineas and her team focus their strategy on producing reliable data, building relationships on Capitol Hill, and walking members of Congress and their staffs through budget trainings, which include simulators that demonstrate which policies drive the debt.

But unlike many activist groups in Washington, the CRFB has kept its hands off of electoral politics. It has no PAC, does not endorse candidates and eschews keeping scorecards for members of Congress.

“I think this money-in-politics system is rotten. I don’t want to be a part of it. So does it hurt our effectiveness? I’m sure,” says MacGuineas, adding that she has never personally contributed to a candidate.

“I so fundamentally believe that putting money into our political system is wrong. It probably would be a smart, strategic thing to do that I’m just not good with,” she adds.

In the meantime, MacGuineas is holding out hope that sunlight will be the best disinfectant and that facts and objective analysis will break through the din.