We need to talk about the Congressional Budget Office. But before you click away from what you assume will be a dreadfully boring discussion of arcane legislative procedures, let me assure you that there’s something larger going on in this argument, one that gets to the heart of where the Trump administration and Republicans are taking our entire political system. So stick with me.
In their weirdly accelerated effort to pass a repeal and replacement for the Affordable Care Act, Republicans bypassed normal procedures by not waiting for the CBO to “score” their bill before passing it through its first committee vote, which happened after 4 a.m. Thursday. There isn’t any mystery about why they’re in such a rush: They’re scared that the CBO score will say that their bill will lead to massive numbers of Americans losing their health coverage, increases in premiums and out-of-pocket costs, an earlier date at which the Medicare trust fund will be depleted and who knows what else. Once the score is issued, it will probably become a weapon Democrats can use against the bill.
The CBO is a nonpartisan office of professional analysts whose job it is to provide Congress with information and research on budgetary matters. They’re not always right when they’re called on to make predictions of the future, because many of the questions they deal with are inherently complex and uncertain. So it’s perfectly legitimate to take issue with any particular report they produce, to say, “Their analysis is problematic for the following reasons.”
But that’s not what Republicans are doing right now. Before the CBO even releases its score (which is expected to happen next week), they’ve launched a preemptive strike on the agency. “If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place,” said Sean Spicer. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise called the CBO “unelected bureaucrats in Washington.”
“If you have sound economic logic in place then that’s more important” than what the CBO says, said Rep. Dave Brat. “CBO has scored everything wrong forever so they’re a minor concern.” In case you’re wondering, “sound economic logic” is code for free-market orthodoxy.
We should note that the CBO’s original assessment of the ACA was indeed off in some ways — but not just in ways that were too optimistic. It overestimated the number of people who would sign up for coverage on the ACA’s exchanges, in part because at the time it wasn’t clear how successful Republican efforts to sabotage the law would eventually be. But it underestimated the positive impact the law would have on the budget deficit.
So while the CBO is hardly perfect, there’s no reason to think that its score of the GOP health-care bill will be incorrectly pessimistic. The reason Republicans are launching this attack is that they’re sure the score will paint a bleak picture of their bill, and they want to inoculate themselves against it. Griping about a CBO score that puts your proposed legislation in a bad light is a long-standing and bipartisan tradition. But Republicans give the game away when they start complaining before the score is even released.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the director of the CBO, Keith Hall, is a Republican economist and former George W. Bush administration official who was chosen for his position by the Republican Congress in 2015. So it isn’t as though the agency is a bunch of leftist hacks who are out to undermine the GOP.
What’s the larger context here? This is straight out of President Trump’s playbook, one that tries to convince everyone that there’s no such thing as a neutral authority on anything. If the CBO might say your bill will have problematic effects, then the answer is not to rebut its particular critique, but to attack the institution itself as fundamentally illegitimate. If the news media report things that don’t reflect well on you, then they’re “the enemy of the American People.” If polls show you with a low approval rating, then “any negative polls are fake news.” If a court issues a ruling you don’t like, then it’s a “so-called judge” who has no right to constrain you.
To Trump and increasingly to his Republican allies, there are only two kinds of people in the world: the ones who agree with them (who are the best people, fantastic, believe me) and the ones who don’t (who are losers and haters). There is no in-between and no such thing as neutrality.
You might recall that in his 2010 State of the Union speech, Barack Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, saying it would “open the floodgates for special interests” to influence elections. He didn’t attack the justices personally or question the legitimacy of the court. Nevertheless, Republicans were terribly offended that Obama would offer such a criticism with members of the court in attendance.
It’s a different time now. When the CBO score of the Republican health-care bill finally arrives, Republicans will turn up the volume on their attack, barely bothering to deal with the score’s specifics but just saying that the CBO is a bunch of dishonest Washington bureaucrats who can’t be trusted. The message will be reinforced on Fox News, conservative talk radio and right-wing websites. The GOP’s base will adopt that position as its own.
Republicans might not persuade most people to go along with them. But they’ll probably have some measure of success in their larger project of undermining the basic idea that there is such a thing as nonpartisan information we as a country can use when we decide what direction we want to move in.