Staying neutral in partisan Washington

In any competitive endeavor, most of the attention is devoted to the two teams duking it out for superiority. Little attention is paid to the referees trying to maintain control and enforce the rules fairly.

But in The Congressional Budget Office: Honest Numbers, Power, and Policymaking, author Philip Joyce tries to do just that, by fleshing out the history and the impact the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has had on the nation’s lawmaking process since its creation in 1974.

Joyce paints the picture of a small bureau that struggles to stay above the partisan fray, but is not afraid to dive into some of the most contentious political issues of the last several decades and offer honest analysis that could rub some very powerful people the wrong way.

By poring over hundreds of news articles about the CBO, as well as several new interviews with CBO directors past and present, Joyce is able to produce a comprehensive accounting of the agency’s existence, with particular attention paid to several instances where it found itself at the forefront of some of Washington’s biggest battles.

While full of history and anecdotes about these congressional bean counters, the book also functions as an academic analysis of sorts. Each footnote-laden chapter is devoted to some aspect of the CBO, and each wraps up with a list of conclusions to be made about the agency in that regard.

In the end, Joyce has an optimistic take on the role the CBO has played in guiding public policy. This should be expected, as the University of Maryland professor worked as a CBO analyst for several years in the 1990s.

But it is remarkable to see the CBO play a central role time and time again in some of D.C.’s most notorious fights. From the government shutdowns of the Clinton era to former President Reagan’s push to cut taxes and boost defense spending, the CBO has helped guide the debate and shape the legislation.

Readers looking for a dramatic narrative will not find it here, as Joyce adopts the role of historian, relying on prior texts and information to tell the CBO’s story without lyrical flourishes. However, those interested in seeing how some of Washington’s biggest debates played out will find a fresh angle within these pages.

Nowhere has the CBO’s role been more prominent than in the fights to reform healthcare. Joyce recounts the downfall of Clinton’s plan — which many attribute to the agency’s scoring — and the struggle of the Obama administration to ultimately craft a package that could receive an optimistic score from the agency.

Alice Rivlin, the CBO’s first director, who helped build the agency, plays a particularly prominent role in the book. Joyce credits Rivlin not only for building the agency from scratch, but also for helping establish that nonpartisanship is an integral piece of CBO’s success.

Perhaps the best proof that the CBO has managed to stay nonpartisan over the years is the fact that it has managed to annoy and frustrate nearly every president it has dealt with, regardless of party. Joyce’s book recounts CBO analyses throwing cold water on a number of major presidential initiatives, from Carter’s energy policy to the aforementioned doomed Clinton effort to overhaul healthcare.

But while the office was created to serve as a counterweight to the president’s budget scorekeepers, the CBO has not always delighted members of Congress. Joyce recounts the heartburn felt by minority members each time a new CBO director was named, fearful that scorekeeping could be done with a thumb on the scale for the party in power. But in fact, just the opposite has occurred — CBO directors have most often disappointed members of their own party, as stringent empirical analysis offers no room for partisan accommodation.

As a particularly blunt example, the author mentions the reaction of former House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) to the CBO scoring of a farm bill when the agency was run by former Reagan staffer Daniel Crippen. In a closed-door meeting to discuss the scoring, Nussle told his Republican colleagues, “The CBO sucks.” He apologized for the remark two years later, at a conference hosted by the CBO.

Such anecdotes help liven up the text that otherwise could struggle to keep most readers’ attention, and represent the most dynamic parts of the book.

Like so much CBO analysis, this book might present an imposing front to a casual reader. But for someone really looking to delve into the nuts and bolts of Congress’s referee, Joyce’s book is a great place to start.