Senate Holds Hearing on the Most Powerful and Little-known Agency in Washington

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing with Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Dr. Keith Hall. These sort of hearings should be part of an ongoing – and increasing – effort to hold CBO more accountable for its role in the policymaking process.

“The Congressional Budget Office has been called the most powerful agency in Washington that taxpayers have never heard of, and it’s long past time to change that perception,” said NTU President Pete Sepp. “Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi deserves a round of applause for following up on last year’s CBO hearing and making oversight of this often-unaccountable part of our government a habitual rather than a haphazard process.” Prior to 2015 and 2016, CBO had not been subject to an oversight hearing since 1982.

Sepp also offered praise to House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price for holding hearings last week on a specific aspect of CBO’s budget-estimating techniques in relation to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation’s (CMMI) rulemakings overpayment reimbursement models. In a September 6 letter to Price, NTU remarked that “In the case of CMMI, the scoring assumptions from CBO raise a number of concerns, over separation of powers, behavioral changes to the economics of the health care, and the viability of cost estimates.”

CBO’s Director Dr. Hall outlined the office’s goals for the upcoming year as (1) continuing to provide timely formal and informal cost estimates, (2) increasing transparency in the office’s methodology and assumptions, (3) utilizing dynamic scoring to determine the macroeconomic impact of policies, specifically health care policies, (4) establishing a model to predict the dynamic impact of trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and (5) hiring and retaining the most qualified staffers. Despite these goals, the CBO still lacks in several analytical areas and does not always use the most adequate mechanisms to show the impact of policies.

For more than two decades NTU’s team of researchers at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) have utilized and analyzed CBO’s work for various fiscal policy projects, and have outlined numerous areas for reforming the budget process as well as the agency’s role in it. For example, through consultation with budget experts, including former CBO staff, NTUF has identified several areas of legislation where the agency’s scoring methods are deficient. Among these are:

  • Bills from New and Junior Members: CBO generally scores only legislation that is supported by committee chairmen or leadership. This means that numerous bills introduced by more junior Members of Congress remain unscored by CBO and, as a result, languish in Congress—despite that fact that they could save taxpayers billions.

  • Unfunded Mandates and Regulations: Currently, CBO only scores mandates that exceed the threshold established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA) of 1995. Observance of this threshold means that dozens of mandates within legislation CBO provides estimates for are not scored.

  • Program Integrity Analysis/“Spend Now to Save Later” Legislation: Many pieces of legislation authorize additional spending to monitor fraud, waste or abuse within a government program. Unfortunately, in many instances, CBO simply cannot provide scoring for these reforms, or is only able to provide an inaccurate and incomplete picture of what is at stake.

“On a near-daily basis, we are reminded of the impact that CBO’s work can have – sometimes for the worse – on the course of federal expenditures and debt,” Sepp concluded. “When it comes to CBO, taxpayers and public officials deserve more transparent answers to the simple question of ‘how do we watch the watchers’?”