The bipartisan neutering of the Congressional Budget Office

The bipartisan neutering of the Congressional Budget Office
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Let me get a few things out of the way up front.

I love the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Without its painstaking work, I wouldn’t have been able to build my passion project, SpendingTracker.org, a site which tallies in real time how much members of Congress are spending.

I’ve never had anything but great interactions with the office’s staff, and have always found them eager to make their work as useful as possible. And they’ve delivered.

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Let me also say that I think we are living in a unique moment in history, one in which the federal government has an imperative to act to alleviate the economic hardship being felt by Americans because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. I believe we are experiencing a once-in-100-year event, and there’s no doubt a premium on acting quickly and assertively.

But that doesn’t mean making decisions based on the facts no longer matters.

Consider this brief timeline: 

On March 4, CBO produced a public cost estimate for the first COVID-19 relief bill, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020. The president signed that bill into law on March 6.

Then, on March 18, the president signed the Families First Coronavirus Act. But unlike the first stimulus bill, CBO didn’t provide a budgetary estimate to Congress prior to the vote. In fact, it only first provided a preliminary estimate on April 2, despite the bill’s impact on all sorts of federal programs, and its provision of “emergency supplemental” appropriations of tens of billions of dollars for everything from nutrition programs to unemployment insurance and paid family leave.

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Then there’s the third stimulus bill, the CARES Act, the nearly $2.3 trillion stimulus package that the president signed on March 27. As before, at no point did CBO provide a public estimate for the law’s impact – it still hasn’t – and the best breakdown we have comes from the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. It’s great analysis, as always, but it’s also not a substitute for an official estimate from the government office that’s supposed to do this work. 

It’s a huge problem for the public and policymakers alike when we don’t get official estimates of how legislation will impact our lives. This is especially true when it involves bills that lead the president to joke that “I never signed anything with a T on it” before as he enacts them into law.

As just one example, some pundits have made the argument that this bill won’t impact the budget as much as we think, because loans to big and small businesses will likely be paid back rather than forgiven. But without more rigorous analysis, to what extent that’s true remains anyone’s guess.

Since its creation in 1974, CBO has had a mandate to provide Congress with independent, objective assessments of legislation likely to come up for a vote. 

So why not now?

Since its score of the first stimulus bill, CBO has produced nearly three dozen other estimates for various pieces of legislation, many of which it found would have no budgetary impact at all. Given my own past interactions with the office, it’s hard for me to believe that CBO is asleep at the wheel with respect to the stimulus. The bigger problem is that Congress just doesn’t care if they have an estimate.

In the rush to pass economic assistance legislation, the last thing many in Congress would want is more emphasis on its cost. That’s especially true when you consider that one of the most hotly debated items, direct cash payments to all Americans, consists of less than $300 billion of the bill’s price tag — not even 13 percent of the total.

Now discussions are already shifting to what should be in the next round of stimulus, with House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death 5 things to know about US-China tensions over Hong Kong Pelosi calls Trump's decision to withdraw US from WHO 'an act of extraordinary senselessness' MORE (D-Calif.) suggesting that a massive infrastructure bill is on the horizon, among other things. If the last few weeks are any guide, it seems unlikely we’ll see an advance estimate of any further legislation either.

Critics on the left and right have noted that the question of how we plan to pay for the stimulus has been thrown out the window. But apparently so has the more basic question of “exactly what will it cost in the first place?” 

The CBO provided budgetary estimates for just about every major piece of legislation in recent memory. There’s the Affordable Care Act, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Actattempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, farm billsdefense authorizations and yes, even past stimulus bills. Never has there not been an estimate produced for a bill that promises to have such a massive impact on the federal budget. 

Most members of Congress almost certainly would have voted for the legislation anyway, even if CBO had produced a score of its true cost. But don’t we at least owe it to ourselves to know before pulling that trigger?

After all, an increasing number of families are now considering what they should be spending on, too, especially if they find themselves laid off or otherwise having their hours cut. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a flurry of big purchases now without thinking through the implications for their family budget. Congress shouldn’t act any differently.

Jonathan M. Bydlak is the director of the R Street Institute’s Fiscal & Budget Policy Project, and the creator of SpendingTracker.org.