Maya MacGuineas: White House Video Continues Dispiriting Pattern of CBO Attacks

Maya MacGuineas is president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt. She recently wrote an opinion piece for The Hill newspaper. It is reposted here. 

The White House released a video on Twitter on Wednesday to continue a discouraging and damaging pattern of attacking the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). 

The CBO is the fiscal scorekeeper of Congress. Its work is solid, nonpartisan and provides a tremendous service in understanding the costs and tradeoffs of thousands of different proposed policies. 

Working at a nonpartisan budget organization, I know quite well the criticisms one gets when people don’t like your work, and not too surprisingly, those criticisms come from different sides depending on the topic. They cite you until they pan you. They love you until they hate you. It comes from both sides and that’s how you know you are doing your job.

Going after the CBO reminds me of those parents on the soccer sidelines screaming at the ref who, while he may not be 100-percent perfect, isn’t rooting for either team. He sure as heck is doing a better job than the screaming parent would be if he or she were calling the game. 

It is important to remember that their estimates are just that — estimates. Of course the CBO is not perfect. But importantly, they do their work employing rigorous analysis, excellent oversight and no political agenda. Their output is incredibly important and helpful in guiding the policymaking process.   

As former CBO Director Rudy Penner said, “A forecast does not have to be perfectly accurate to be useful. If a weather forecaster predicts three inches of rain and only two inches fall, it can be said that it was a terrible forecast in that it was off by one-third. Nevertheless, it was useful to know that a lot of rain was coming.”

In this round of attacks, the White House criticisms include how much coverage the CBO estimated there would be under Obamacare, and what baseline against which to compare Medicaid estimates. 

So let's take these one at a time. 

The CBO greatly overestimated how many employers would drop coverage, resulting in more people moving onto the exchanges. The CBO estimated 25 million would use the Obamacare exchanges to purchase insurance in 2017. The real number, as the White House correctly noted, is closer to 10 million. 

This is largely the result of more employers choosing to offer (or continuing to offer) coverage to their employees. But overall, the estimates of coverage were impressively close, with an estimate of 29 million uninsured in 2017, while the actual number looks to be about 27 million. 

For the second claim, the CBO is not using a "faulty baseline." It uses the baseline it was instructed to use by Congress because of wonky budget process rules. Congress is attempting to repeal and replace Obamacare using budget reconciliation from last year’s budget resolution (which they did in January).

Lawmakers used the March 2016 baseline for their budget, and thus, that is what CBO uses to score against. It is not the most accurate baseline, but hey, that’s what happens when Congress passes its budget almost a year late. 

Thank goodness the CBO continues to play by the rules, release unbiased estimates and continues to contribute important information to the discussion. It’s not as though they make up economic growth numbers to make the numbers add up. Now that would be something to tweet a snarky video about.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the Committee.