Has there ever been a time when the Congressional Budget Office played a more consequential role than it is playing right now? Somewhat surprisingly for an office full of eggheads and number crunchers, it has become a nexus of controversy and contention, its latest assessments eagerly awaited and assumed to have a dramatic impact on every debate it touches.
Today, the CBO released its latest score of the most recent version of the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and once again, it shows the effects of the bill to be horrific. The bill would cut Medicaid by $756 billion and result in 22 million fewer Americans with health coverage by 2026, with 15 million of those coverage losses happening in the first year. In other words, it’s another score that offers a vivid picture of the damage that Republican plans would do.
Which is why Republicans have launched a full-scale assault on the CBO, trying to discredit it so that no one will listen when the CBO explains what consequences Republican plans would actually have.
It isn’t all that surprising that Republicans would try to do that — the creation of alternate realities they can shape has often been a core part of their political project. What matters is that it has failed. The reasons why can actually give us some hope that our politics retains some tether connecting it to reality.
But first, that’s not the only CBO-related news. A group called the Protect Democracy Project filed a lawsuit today against the Office of Management and Budget, seeking a court order requiring OMB to immediately turn over any communications regarding plans it might have to attack and discredit the CBO, including emails coming from Newt Gingrich, who has been publicly advocating that the CBO be abolished. The basic idea of the lawsuit seems to be that the administration is planning to destroy the CBO, and the public deserves to know what they’re up to.
But this isn’t just about health care — there’s a longer game being played. Yes, the administration is stricken by what the CBO has said about the various iterations of Republicans’ health-care plan. But it is also almost certainly worried about what’s to come on issues such as infrastructure and especially tax reform. Cutting taxes is the goal nearest and dearest to Republican hearts, and there’s a good chance that when Republicans come up with a bill, the CBO will say that it’s going to explode the deficit. Under current rules, that will restrict what Republicans can do if they want to pass it through reconciliation with only 50 votes in the Senate.
The only way to get around that would be to change Senate rules so the CBO was no longer the arbiter of whether a bill does or doesn’t increase the deficit. That would be a radical step, and I don’t know if Senate Republicans are even contemplating it. But if they were, a campaign to discredit the CBO would have to be the first part of the plan.
So the stakes are high. And in the health-care debate, the CBO’s judgments have been absolutely crushing for Republicans. Its score of the first House bill showed that it would lead to 24 million Americans without health coverage, an assessment that was widely reported on the news. Democrats repeated the “24 million” number a zillion times, and polls showed the bill’s popularity somewhere between that of Martin Shkreli and canker sores. When Paul Ryan revised the bill, he pushed it through to a vote before CBO could get a chance to score it, obviously fearing what the score would reveal (the eventual score of that version showed 23 million losing coverage). The scores of Senate versions have not been much better, and as a result any Republican who tries to defend the effort inevitably gets the CBO figures thrown at them.
All of which is why Republicans are trying so hard to discredit the CBO. “It’s almost like it’s not a fair analysis,” said White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, complaining that the office is using methodologies designed by Democrats. Never mind that the current director of the CBO, Keith Hall, is a Republican economist and veteran of the George W. Bush administration who was picked for the job in 2015 by the Republican leadership in Congress. “At some point, you’ve got to ask yourself, has the day of the CBO come and gone?” Mulvaney said in May. The White House even made a video attacking the CBO (the video misspelled “inaccurately” not once but twice).
Both parties have at times complained about one CBO score or another when those scores didn’t turn out the way they would have liked. But the critical point about this Republican effort is that it isn’t succeeding. The news media continue to accept the CBO’s judgments for what they are: not perfect by any means, but the best nonpartisan, objective measure we have to assess what important bills will do.
When Republicans go around bad-mouthing the CBO and accusing its workers of being nothing but liberal shills, they might be able to convince their own supporters that it’s true. But the more ambitious your goals, the more you’ll need to expand beyond your own base to gather support. So while Republicans might be able to get the “Fox & Friends” audience on board with their campaign to discredit the CBO, if they’re trying to remake the American health-care system or enact an enormous tax cut for the wealthy, that won’t be enough. The attack on the CBO is so nakedly cynical and partisan that it just isn’t going to have broad persuasive power. That means that those brutal numbers, whether it’s 24 million losing coverage or 32 million losing coverage or whatever the latest score reveals, will continue to be disseminated. Reality actually stands a chance.
Maybe the better answer for Republicans would be to write bills that won’t have such a devastating effect on Americans, which would get them better CBO scores. Just an idea.