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There’s more to the CBO score than meets the eye

By Ezra Klein,

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST Democrats are thrilled that the Congressional Budget Office scored Harry Reid’s plan (pdf) as saving more than twice as much as John Boehner’s plan (pdf). But let’s be clear: Reid’s plan does not save twice as much money as Boehner’s plan. It probably saves about the same amount of money as Boehner’s plan, at least at the outset. It just fits Reid’s strategy to emphasize his savings and it fits Boehner’s strategy to hide his savings. The difference between the two scores says less about the two plans than it does about the maneuvering that led to them, and the CBO itself.

Both the Reid and Boehner plans cut about $850 billion in discretionary spending. The major difference — at least in terms of immediate cuts — is that Reid’s plan tells the Congressional Budget Office that he’s winding down the wars, which nets him $1 trillion, while Boehner doesn’t say anything about the wars. But this isn’t a policy difference between the two men. Boehner’s office calls that $1 trillion “war money that would never have been spent.”

Some months ago, Boehner laid down his “dollar-for-dollar” principle: Republicans wouldn’t agree to lift the debt ceiling unless Democrats agreed to cuts that are “greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority.” But that left a question on the table: What’s a “cut”?

Well, in Congress, a cut is often whatever the Congressional Budget Office says it is. Boehner’s dollar-for-dollar demand thus set up an odd dynamic in which Democrats wrote their package in such a way that CBO said it had lots of cuts, and Republicans wrote their package so that CBO couldn’t see some of the cuts. What was perhaps less expected was that the two sides would write almost identical packages — at least for the initial round of cuts — and thus highlight quirks in the budget process.

But they did. And so here’s the bottom line: If we use the Democrats’ package, Boehner’s dollar-for-dollar demand is met. If we use Boehner’s package, the plan is about $1.5 trillion short of meeting the dollar-for-dollar requirement, and thus Republicans can demand more cuts and concessions. But the specific cuts that will happen if we implement the first round of the two packages are pretty much the same.

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