Economy & Budget

Requiem for the budget wonk? Not if we can help it

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It’s been a big week for the Congressional Budget Office. On Monday, the New York Times profiled Keith Hall, the agency’s director of the last two years and detailed his frustration amid mounting partisan drama and criticism of the agency. Then, on Wednesday, Hall testified in front of a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee to make the case for CBO’s FY2018 budget request. 

Both the profile and the director’s testimony highlight the strains under which CBO has been operating. Congressional Republicans and administration officials, including Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price have not been shy in questioning whether the agency should even play a major role in policymaking to begin with, pointing to what they say are off-the-mark CBO estimates on Obamacare and the American Health Care Act. 

The agency may be famously full of scholars and wonks, but it’s clearly no stranger to partisan debates, too. Despite producing more than 600 legislative analyses per year, it tends to get caught up in controversy over the several reports per session — like the AHCA — that make headline news. Hall lamented to the Times that the organization is “working in a partisan world and we get treated as if we’re partisan… that’s unfortunate.” 

He may be right, but the extent to which observers are inclined to sympathize with his predicament tends to depend upon which party they belong to and what’s on the legislative agenda. The recent criticism from Republicans over AHCA scores replaces past sniping from Democrats over ACA budgetary estimates or wage reports.

It’s not a surprise that the CBO analysis of the lightning-rod AHCA has caused a storm of controversy, and its widely publicized predictions on changes to the number of uninsured are not above fair critique.

But in today’s age of hyper-partisanship, can the wonks live to see another day? A recent effort suggests that they can; or at least that there is some bipartisan consensus on reforms that can increase the utility of the 43-year-old institution in the internet era and perhaps move it toward the type of modernizing that could quiet the critics.

This week, the organization I lead, the Coalition to Reduce Spending, joined with 26 others to deliver a letter to the Congressional Budget Office suggesting changes that would help in the work of groups ranging from FreedomWorks and DemandProgress to and the Sunlight Foundation. 

In other words, while partisan tensions may be at an all-time high elsewhere, 27 wildly-different organizations agreed on a range of suggestions for the very organization currently caught up in the most contentious of these fights. That alone is nothing if not a bright spot in an otherwise fractured political climate. 

The recommendations range from minor to groundbreaking, such as urging the CBO to standardize its score reports or to provide its data in more computer-readable formats. But even small steps toward more data-friendly reporting could be momentous for fiscal conservatives and the technology community alike.

Reporters and readers may take for granted the incredible strides toward open government data that have happened over just the last few years. When GovTrack was created in 2001, the Library of Congress gave a flat “no” in response to its founder’s requests for data. Having easy access to voting record and bill information was simply unheard of. Now, Congress itself mandates the sharing of this type of information. 

The Congressional Budget Office, created in 1974 out of political standoffs not unlike today, came along with the flurry of reforms in the 1974 Budget Act, intended to rein in unconstitutional presidential overreach. Since then, the institution has stood the test of time through many contentious years, but its longevity does not mean there is not still room to improve. 

As backlash and controversy again begin to creep into the realm of the scorekeepers, practical steps toward openness and data are a straightforward way to give all sides something to celebrate. 

Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, an organization that advocates for reduced federal spending and balanced budgets.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags American Health Care Act Coalition to Reduce Spending Congressional Budget Office Fiscal conservatism Internal Revenue Code Jonathan Bydlak Mick Mulvaney Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Politics of the United States
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