Government Shutdown Limits Budget Options (Literally!)

The government is still shut down, the debt ceiling is fast approaching, and the need to put our debt on a sustainble path remains. This environment creates an opportunity for organizations to put forward a variety of budget options for lawmakers to consider. But because of the shutdown, a traditional supplier of those options is hamstrung.

As the shutdown drags on, people are becoming more familiar with what exactly happens as a result, either as they experience it personally or from the news. Yet one less visible, and ironic, effect of the shutdown is that the lack of funding for the government has crippled the very agency in charge of analyzing that government funding. Yes, the Congressional Budget Office has been mostly shut down.

CBO Director Doug Elmendorf announced on the eve of the shutdown that the only essential personnel in the agency allowed to stay on the job would be those involved in analyzing active legislation. So while CBO still has been able to provide cost estimates for a few bills that have looked to fund small parts of the government, all its other work has ground to a halt.

This is notable considering the significant amount of analysis they did during the lead up to the shutdown on their long-term budget outlook, in addition to other topics. It is quite notable given that CBO had planned to issue the biennial update of its Budget Options report this month. It is not clear when exactly they will release it, but a government shutdown could very well delay the release of the report if enough time is lost. A delay at this time would be significant, since lawmakers are certainly discussing options right now, either in the context of the debt limit or tax reform, the latter of which is expected to begin in the tax-writing committees this fall. Since Budget Options hasn't been updated in two and a half years, it is important to have more recent estimates of various policies.

As it turns out, this lack of a functional budget process could end up leaving lawmakers with less resources to work, especially at a time when they should finally decide to begin working toward a comprehensive fiscal deal.