The Congressional Budget Office Vs. Paul Ryan: Will the Nonpartisan Entity Stand Its Ground?

The Congressional Budget Office Vs. Paul Ryan: Will the Nonpartisan Entity Stand Its Ground?

paul ryan

This past weekend, while broadcasting from the snazzy new studio of NBC’s Sunday stalwart, Meet the Press, freshman host Chuck Todd uttered a provocative statement/question directed at Dan Pfeiffer, senior advisor to President Obama. The dialogue centered on the Ebola crisis and the CDC’s preparedness to handle additional American cases that may develop. Todd sought to probe Pfeiffer about the government’s assurance of readiness, with references to other Obama administration scandals and missteps:

“I think one of your challenges though is a trust deficit that has been created over the last 18 months…it is a fact about all the different sort of government gaps over the last 18 months. Edward Snowden stealing NSA files, the VA faking wait times, IRS losing emails, healthcare.gov doesn’t launch.

The president himself saying, ‘U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated ISIS.’ The DHS, the border failure with that surge over the summer, sort of failure, and of course, the secret service. Why should we trust that what you’re saying about the CDC is able to handle this? You understand why there’s more skepticism than normal.”

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While the relative applicability and fairness of the interrogation can be debated, Todd’s point about a broad crisis confidence in our leadership’s honesty, competency and proactivity is well-taken. To Todd’s list I might add that an overtly political, conservatively activist SCOTUS has also led to “more skepticism than normal” when it comes to independent truth. There are very few nonpartisan, unbiased institutions left to us.

But we always have the Congressional Budget Office. Or do we? Per its website, the CBO describes its mission as follows:

“Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process. The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. All CBO employees are appointed solely on the basis of professional competence, without regard to political affiliation. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies.”

For 30 years, American citizens have been able to enjoy the uninterrupted luxury of taking CBO data at face value, without having to search for a hidden agenda. It’s been quaint and refreshing. However, if he has his way, Wisconsin Congressman House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will deprive voters of one of its last cynicism-free zones. In his column “Voodoo Economics, the Next Generation,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes:

“[Ryan] is dropping broad hints that after the election he and his colleagues will do what the Bushies never did, try to push the budget office into adopting ‘dynamic scoring,’ that is, assuming a big economic payoff from tax cuts.

So why is this happening now? It’s not because voodoo economics has become any more credible.”

Note the transition from former President Bill Clinton’s late 1990s surplus, to Dubya’s early aughts budget crater, should have been enough to teach us all that tax cuts do not, after all, pay for themselves. When money is returned to the already wealthy, they don’t invest in human capital and infrastructure projects. They buy things and hoard cash as the deficit balloons.

But nevertheless, as Krugman continues:

“Voodoo economics has dominated the conservative movement for so long that it has become an inward-looking cult, whose members know what they know and are impervious to contrary evidence…

[And} Second, the nature of the budget debate means that Republican leaders need to believe in the ways of magic.”

Well, the GOP establishment has the freedom to pursue any convoluted agenda it likes. They can continue to play Jedi Mind Tricks on the mass media and members of the party’s fervent base. But the CBO doesn’t have to play co-conspirator, and moreover, it musn’t.

One need not be an economist with a PhD to understand that large-scale tax cuts carry a cost ($3.5 trillion to extend all of the Bush cuts, except the estate and gift tax reductions, through 2020), not an economic return. Does the CBO have the pride and determination to weather the post-midterm election political pressure from the right? If not, I have to agree with Krugman that, “It would destroy the credibility of a very important institution, one that has served the country well.”

Last week we watched a once vaunted institution, the Secret Service, crumble under the weight of scandal and mismanagement. And it’s been years since the basic functions of Congress ground to a halt as the result of partisan obstruction. The CBO must protect its impartiality, not for the sake of any Republican or Democratic agenda, but for the people. Let’s do something really revolutionary. Let’s win one for common sense.

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