CBO Apparently an Equal Opportunity Buzzkill

If you’ve been following the health care debate and any other congressional debate involving money this year, you’ll notice the Congressional Budget Office has been playing a very important role, grabbing an unusual amount of headlines for such an apolitical and wonky office. For a policy idea to be considered “viable”, it has to get a good score from the CBO.

Now what exactly does that mean? In general, a good score is one that has the greatest positive (or least negative) effect on the budget over a 10-year window. This is crucial, since the House has instilled rules under the Democratic majority that mandate all policy initiatives to be at least budget neutral. PAYGO, as it’s generally called, is a pain in the ass, but also a good idea since the Republican style of credit card spending isn’t particularly viable in the long term. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a huge pain in the ass in the short term (for more on PAYGO, see CBPP’s useful primer).

So this is where the CBO gains its power. And get used to it, as long as the agents of fiscal responsibility (Dems) are in control anyway. What makes the whole dynamic so interesting is that the CBO seems to be quite capable of acting neutrally regardless of political pressure. Since they tend to take a very cautious approach to revenue estimates, you see a wide swath of policies on both sides be strewn into the political dumpster for failing to meet their strict criteria.

One such policy is the tax on oil speculation, proposed by Rep. DeFazio, that we’ve been advocating. DeFazio requested the CBO to score it along with another proposal to tax oil itself by the barrel. Although they have not yet released the official report, word is that CBO simply claimed too many variables were at play with the speculator tax (volume of trading, small transaction amounts, avoidance) and returned a combined score that only included the barrel tax. Now there may be a wide range of possibilities for the amount of revenue this measure will bring in, and nobody has any particular idea , but is it fair to effectually mark the speculator tax as zero? Wouldn’t it be more honest to estimate somewhere between zero and a bajillion dollars? But either way, it’s now difficult to imagine proponents of the plan will have the political fortitude to withstand both the Big Oil and Wall Street lobbies to push a tax that doesn’t officially raise any revenue. Oh well.

On the other hand, CBO did also throw some cold water on Kent Conrad’s insidious co-op plan. So I guess it ain’t all bad. Such is life – nonpartisan budget analysts are omnipresent in the era of PAYGO.


Somewhat Irrelevant Disclosure: I personally know a number of former senior-level CBO officials, including my graduate school advisor at George Washington University, and they are all very well-intentioned budget/tax wonks.


1 comment so far

  1. Chris on

    I don’t blame the CBO’s employees or leadership but the current dynamic is leading them in a direction where they’ll increasing interact with policy making in an unhelpful way. It’s clearly not accurate to say the oil speculation tax will bring in zero dollars, unless you seriously think avoidance levels will approach 100%. They are being asked impossible questions, and the lack of an affirmative answer is being treated as an negative answer.

    “What makes the whole dynamic so interesting is that the CBO seems to be quite capable of acting neutrally regardless of political pressure.

    While the CBO presently appears capable of acting politically neutral that might not last forever and no organization is capable of resisting the institutional pressures to inflate their own importance and increase their power.

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