Budget referee caught in ObamaCare crossfire

The pressure is on for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and its director, Keith Hall.

The independent scorekeeper is scrambling to analyze legislation from House Republicans that would repeal and replace ObamaCare, with a report expected in the coming days.

The office's scores of legislation are often considered make-or-break, with both parties pointing to them as indicators of how a bill would affect the federal budget and the economy.

But a partisan battle is brewing over the CBO's numbers. Republicans are openly questioning the accuracy of the office’s work as they seek to fulfill their campaign pledge to repeal ObamaCare.

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"If you're looking at the CBO for accuracy, you're looking in the wrong place,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday. 

While CBO reports are always subject to debate, the office has never before come under such fierce attack before a score is even released. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are demanding that the House's work on the healthcare legislation be halted until a CBO score is available.

“They have demanded Congressional Budget Offices state the facts before the members can act upon the legislation — except right now,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Because they’re afraid of the facts.”

The maelstrom has raised the stakes for Hall and his team, who will soon be coming under intense scrutiny.

“[Hall] has the toughest job in Washington right now,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, CBO director from 2003 to 2005.

“The expectations will be so high, and he's dealing with reality.”

Hall was picked by Republican lawmakers to lead the CBO in 2015. At the time, he was the chief economist at the International Trade Commission and a senior fellow at the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He also headed the Bureau of Labor Statistics under former President George W. Bush after serving on the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Democrats were initially skeptical about an economist who worked for the Bush administration leading the non-partisan agency, but Republicans were effusive in their praise. 

Then-House Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ohio) called Hall “uniquely qualified” with “a wealth of expertise.” Tom Price, who left the House to become President Trump’s health secretary, called Hall the right choice to lead the office and praised his “vast understanding of economic and labor market policy.” 

Now, two years later, Hall and his team are under the gun as they seek to gauge the impact of Republican legislation that could bring transformative change to the nation’s healthcare system.

“There’s a lot to do as quickly as possible and at the same time an imperative to do the analysis carefully,” said Douglas Elmendorf, who was CBO director from 2009 to 2015.

“People at CBO work very hard to produce estimates as quickly as possible, but people are unwilling to sacrifice the credibility of the estimates for speed.”

Republicans are bracing for the CBO score’s impact on their long-promised bid to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Healthcare experts say the CBO is likely to find that millions of people will lose insurance if the bill is enacted.

The CBO put Republicans on the defensive earlier this year when it reported that repealing ObamaCare without a replacement could leave 18 million people without health insurance. The report was requested by Democrats.

Ahead of the new score, GOP lawmakers have ripped CBO’s past work, insisting that some of the office’s scores have been misleading or didn’t paint the whole picture. 

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told The Hill last week, “No offense to the CBO, they work very hard there, but I don't think they're very accurate a lot of times, and they operate with a lot of arcane assumptions.” 

Other Republicans have criticized the CBO by asserting that its scoring of ObamaCare turned out to be wrong. 

“When they scored how many people at this point in time would be on the ObamaCare exchange, they were off by about a 2-to-1 ratio,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt. 

A study from the Commonwealth Fund found that the CBO's estimates for ObamaCare enrollment were off, but also said the office's projections were closer to the mark than those of other forecasters.

Republicans have in the past criticized the CBO as failing to adequately take into account how lower taxes and deregulation affect the economy, arguing in particular that “dynamic scoring” better captures the impact of simulative tax cuts.

Over the years, lawmakers in both parties have used CBO scores to attack legislation they don’t like and champion bills that they do. 

But Democrats have slammed the decision by Republicans to advance their healthcare legislation out of committee without a CBO estimate. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSchumer: NYC should refuse to pay for Trump’s security Reagan's 'voodoo economics' are precisely what America needs When political opportunity knocked, Jason Chaffetz never failed to cash in MORE (D-N.Y.) called it a “reckless” decision.  

GOP aides have defended their timeline, noting that committees often mark up bills before CBO scores them. They have said the full House won’t vote on the healthcare legislation until after the budget office’s analysis is released.  

Former CBO chiefs say it’s common for the agency’s scores to upset lawmakers. 

“Every CBO director disappoints his own party. It's the nature of the job,” said Holtz-Eakin.

“Advocates of legislation always want the estimates to look good,” echoed Elmendorf. “CBO rarely produces answers that everyone is looking for.”

Elmendorf warned against dismissing CBO altogether. 

“It’s important for the leaders of our government to respect talented and hardworking people who are making the government operate,” Elmendorf said. 

“The most important thing for people to know about CBO is that it’s full of very knowledgeable, very hardworking objective analysts who understand the uncertainty of the estimates.”

“The fact that estimates have inaccuracies does not mean that estimates should be ignored.”

Mike Lillis, Jordan Fabian and Peter Sullivan contributed.