Bipartisan Bill Aims to Enhance CBO Data Access and Timely Cost Estimates

Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced legislation to make it easier for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to get information it needs from federal agencies to produce cost estimates of legislation. Their bill, the Congressional Budget Office Data Access Act, will help CBO to respond to congressional requests for legislative analyses in a timelier manner and can also increase the quality and detail of the cost estimates. 

CBO plays a crucial role in the legislative process, reporting to lawmakers on the bottom-line budgetary impact of the proposals being considered in committees and on the floors of the House and the Senate. The congressional workload places a lot of demands on CBO for its analyses. For example, last year CBO completed 760 cost estimates.

These reports need to be provided in a timely manner so that lawmakers have access to budgetary information before legislative proposals are considered. There has also been interest in having CBO provide cost estimates before committees mark up legislation. This way lawmakers would be able to address any unexpected cost concerns or find realistic offsets to prevent adding to the deficit.

To complete many of these cost analyses, CBO needs access to information from executive agencies. The Congressional Budget Act provides general authority for the CBO to obtain "information, data, estimates, and statistics" from executive agencies. While this legislation requires CBO to "maintain the same level of confidentiality as the agency" from which it gets information, there are some cases where agencies have sensitive restricted data that cannot be released to the public. 

To acquire this information, CBO needs to make formal agreements with agencies that lay out formal rules for CBO’s use of the data and measures to protect the privacy and security of the data that is to be shared. In a 2021 report, CBO wrote that it had over 20 active data use agreements with other agencies. In general, these allow CBO to access data for a period of three to five years.

CBO notes that obtaining data from agencies can be challenging and working out the informal agreements can take up a considerable amount of personnel hours, and last anywhere from a total of a month or in a few cases several years.

Peters' and Collins' CBO Data Access Act (S. 1549) would help to expedite this process. The bill would add the CBO to the same exemption to the Privacy Act of 1974 that is provided to the Government Accountability Office and both chambers of Congress. The Privacy Act governs handling of personal information made available to governmental entities. In general, an agency cannot disclose certain data unless the individual to whom the record pertains gives prior written consent to the disclosure. With the exemption, it will be easier for CBO to arrange access to information and CBO is still obligated to protect the confidentiality of the data.

Congress places a lot of demands on CBO to analyze legislation and to do so in a timely manner so that members can review cost estimates before considering proposals. The bipartisan CBO Data Access Act would make it easier for CBO to get the data it needs. With expedited access to more detailed data, CBO can more efficiently provide higher quality cost estimates to Congress.