CBO head weathers storms

Greg Nash

Doug Elmendorf has been in the middle of a series of political storms this year.

As head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) since 2009, Elmendorf is used to it. He is a one of the few nonpartisan leaders in a partisan town. The CBO’s main client is Congress, though the agency’s mission is not to please members of Congress. That inherently leads to friction.

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Being Capitol Hill’s referee is never easy, but this election year has been especially challenging. Indeed, Elmendorf has had to deploy all of his diplomatic skills to maintain his strong relationships with both sides of the aisle. And his efforts have worked.

At the start of February, the CBO sent Democrats reeling after finding that ObamaCare would result in 2 million fewer workers by the end of the decade.  

The White House issued an unusual critique of CBO methods, after it estimated raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would cost 500,000 jobs by 2016. Senior Obama economic adviser Jason Furman said the CBO’s analysis was outside the consensus view of mainstream economists. 

The tumult comes after the CBO enraged Republicans last year by finding that comprehensive immigration reform would lower deficits by nearly $200 billion over a decade and by some $1 trillion over 20 years. Congress and the White House will be watching closely when the CBO issues its own score of Obama’s 2015 budget in the coming weeks and how it handles any GOP ObamaCare replacement bill. 

Lawmakers and experts wonder if Elmendorf wants to stay on the job and say there could be some drama over a replacement at the end of this year, depending on who wins in the midterm elections. The director’s term ends in January. 

Democrats are standing by him, despite the controversial recent findings.

“Dr. Elmendorf is doing a great job,” House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said.

“He’s sort of like the rain — he falls on the just and the unjust alike,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Budget Committee member, said. “He calls them the way he sees them. Some of those reports my side has loved. Others the Democrats have loved. I think he’s done a good job”

“He’s well-liked,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), another member of the Budget panel.

Elmendorf, who is married with twin daughters in college, has a dry sense of humor. After Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) last month suggested the CBO’s work makes people’s eyes glaze over, Elmendorf deadpanned, “I’m offended.”

Asked if he wants to stay on, Elmendorf has been mum.  

“I love my job and am focused on doing it this year,” he said recently. Elmendorf declined to comment for this article.

If Republicans take the Senate, it is possible the GOP might want a registered Republican to take over, even though Elmendorf is well regarded by GOP members. 

“Politics are very much involved,” said former CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin. “If Republicans win the House and Senate, they are going to want a Republican in the job.”

On the other hand, aides and experts said neither side wants to see the CBO headed by an ideologue, because that could raise questions when a controversial report is issued. 

“CBO is completely by the numbers. Their talented staff and culture keep the institution pushing out unbiased reports. The controversy comes from politicians not liking the results and pointing fingers to try to weaken the institution,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. 

“You really don’t want to be seen stacking the deck at CBO,” said Bob Bixby at The Concord Coalition.

Bixby said that the last five years have been a “horror” for the CBO, given the complexity of ObamaCare and the fluctuations in the economy.

“Given all of that, the job he as done is all the more remarkable,” Bixby said. “It is really hard to criticize him, since he has played it so straight.”

Elmendorf, 51, came to the CBO from the centrist Brookings Institution and previously served on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. 

The House and Senate Budget Committees, under a gentlemen’s agreement, take turns picking the CBO director. However, aides are already at odds over which panel gets to take the lead later this year.

Elmendorf was picked by former House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) and Democratic leaders in 2009 to fill out the term of Peter Orszag, who became Obama’s budget chief. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) spearheaded his selection for a full four-year term in 2011 with support from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). 

Some staffers say that Elmendorf should count as a House pick given Spratt’s involvement, while others say he is a Senate pick in light of Conrad’s role.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who would become the next chairman of the Senate Budget Committee if the GOP wins the upper chamber, said he doesn’t have anybody in mind yet to become the next CBO head. He added that he would be open to Elmendorf staying on because he has been effective.

“I think Director Elmendorf ought to be given very serious consideration. He’s a talented person and has integrity. He gives the answer as requested,” Sessions said. 

In the House, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is likely to become the next Budget Committee chairman. Ryan wants to take over the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, where he would have a chance to shepherd a Medicare reform bill. 

Sources said Price is more focused on getting the CBO to change its methods to include more dynamic effects from economic growth than in removing Elmendorf — if the CBO chief wants to stay.

Democrats warned that Sessions and Price would damage the CBO if they try to install an economist far outside the mainstream.

“Not having faith in CBO would be like losing faith in the periodic table,” liberal Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said. 

Holtz-Eakin, a centrist Republican, said Elmendorf and Alice Rivlin have been the best CBO directors. Rivlin was the first, while Elmendorf has overseen landmark reports on the Obama stimulus bill, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and ObamaCare. 

He said that anyone who holds the job has to be prepared to come under fire: “Memories are long. That feeds this difficulty in the job.”

When he became CBO director in 2003, a member told him, “I can’t believe what you did to me in 1992.”

An incredulous Holtz-Eakin responded, “I just got here!”

The CBO’s staff gave Holtz-Eakin a toy skunk when he left, because, he said, the agency is always the “skunk at the picnic.”