If you don’t like the score, play better

Senate Democrats, frustrated their increasingly costly agenda is hitting some speedbumps (also known as business as usual), are considering a novel—and dangerous—solution to their legislative logjam: sub out the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) director for someone sympathetic to their policy goals. Mother Jones broke the news:

Behind closed doors, Democrats in Congress are considering a drastic move to make their push around those rules easier: Fire the director of the Congressional Budget Office, the scorekeeping agency that measures the federal budget impact of pending legislation. The interest stems from some Democrats’ disappointment over the CBO’s recent scores of the party’s top priorities and a desire to see the office led by an economist willing to give Democrats the scores they’re looking for to push Biden’s agenda over the finish line. Such a move would make the ostensibly nonpartisan office a wonky pawn in the three-dimension chess game Democrats hope to play to push Biden’s agenda over the finish line.

It is not unusual for Congress to change disliked rules. Both Democratic and Republican Senators have done this to hustle nominees through without that pesky three-fifths rule to avoid a filibuster. In 2001, Senate Republicans booted long-time Parliamentarian Bob Dove over a procedural rule on tax cuts. To get around the “72-hour rule,” which requires legislative text be available for 72 hours for public review before floor action, House leaders have gone so far as to create time itself ex nihilo in order to proclaim “days” have passed and the vote has ripened. Likewise, both chambers are regularly guilty of letting the Rules Committee “deem” legislation as passed despite never receiving a single floor vote. Anywhere else, this kind of behavior would be considered underhanded at best.

Maybe this new idea—to replace the ump mid-game for calling balls and strikes—will finally have Washington-watchers crying foul.

Under the 1974 “Budget Control and Impoundment Control Act,” the CBO was established to be an objective, nonpartisan economic and scorekeeping service for Congress, providing cost-estimates and other fiscal data to help lawmakers make informed decisions. CBO’s first director, Alice Rivlin, enshrined this commitment to impartiality, telling the New York Times in 2008, “The most important decision I made was that we would not make recommendations.”

Though there is room for criticism when it comes to some scoring methods, accuracy and the need to improve transparency, the CBO has consistently upheld a non-political ethic—maintained by its current director—which is one fundamental source of its credibility. Installed in 2019 for a four-year term, Dr. Phillip Swagel enjoyed bipartisan support at every step in the appointment process.

Here is how that came together:

The 1974 Act stipulates that the House and Senate budget committees make recommendations, “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of [his/hers] fitness to perform [his/hers] duties.” On an informal basis, this selection swaps between the two chambers, but the ultimate recommendation comes with the support of both. Both House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) recommended Dr. Swagel for the directorship because he “possesses the professional qualifications to assume this role, and, most importantly, that he shares our commitment to maintaining the nonpartisan nature of the Congressional Budget Office.”

The appointment then rests with the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House. In 2019, this was Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), respectively. The appointment was announced in a joint message published in the Congressional Record:

Following this appointment, both committee chairs issued their own congratulatory statements in support of Director Swagel. Rep. Yarmuth’s read, “I am confident Dr. Phillip Swagel will ensure the office continues to fulfill its important mission. I look forward to working with him.”

With both parties clearly involved in every part of the appointment process, the sudden removal of Director Swagel by a Democratic Congress—without evidence of gross unprofessionalism, mismanagement or crimes—could deal a serious blow to the CBO’s long-standing reputation, and effectiveness. It also sets a dangerous precedent for future policy fights. Removing the umpire just because you are losing the game is not a sustainable or responsible way to make public policy.

The 1974 Act does provide for the removal of a CBO director through a resolution taken up in either chamber, but replacement under these circumstances would violate a significant norm that has formed the bulwark of legislative substance and process for nearly 50 years. If the CBO were to become another partisan tool in the hands of powerful leaders and overbearing majorities, it would exacerbate partisan animosity and back legislators further into their respective corners. Deteriorating trust in the CBO would call all of its work into question, making it difficult to get a real sense of legislative consequences for everyone, both on and off the Hill.

If Democrats want better scores, they should focus on the fundamentals: pay for priorities or simply spend less. For instance, President Joe Biden’s $2.5 trillion infrastructure package is packed with spending on low-priority projects, and last month’s American Rescue Plan contained more than $500 billion in aid that most states simply do not need. Instead of an honest debate over the costs and benefits of these and other policy goals, like the Green New Deal or boosting the minimum wage, Democrats are attempting to divert attention from the dire economic implications of these policies by attacking the role of the CBO director. Even if Democrats do not move forward with this plot, these actions could cast doubt on the CBO and impact the manner in which the director and his experts conduct their work.

As we face huge fiscal hurdles, such as our rapidly depleting trust funds and the ongoing pandemic, it is essential that Congress have a neutral arbiter who can provide consistent, reliable information on where we are, what lies ahead and how legislative choices will affect our future. Without an independent scorekeeper, members of Congress will be unable to form workable solutions in line with real-world impacts.

Institutions like the CBO should not be political pawns. Though not infallible—and healthy debate certainly permits disagreement and alternative perspectives—they are still a core facet of the legislative process. Undermining the legitimacy of the CBO director will only further erode the power of the First Branch.

Filed Under:
Topics: Budget & Appropriations
Nan Swift
Nan Swift researches, writes and builds relationships across party lines to promote R Street’s Governance Program with Congress. Prior to R Street,...