Congressional Republicans on Friday tapped Keith Hall, an economist with a long record of government service and policy analysis, to lead the Congressional Budget Office, placing a critical arbiter of proposed legislation in the hands of a free-
market thinker often described as measured and cool.
Hall previously served as chief economist for President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, commissioner of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and in a variety of research capacities, most recently at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and at the U.S. International Trade Commission. He will take over at the CBO on April 1.
The appointment drew wide praise from Republicans and cautious approval from some Democrats, with the most notable objection rising from the ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee. The pick did not stir the heated political controversy that some conservatives had feared when leading congressional Republicans signaled their plans not to reappoint Douglas Elmendorf, who has won bipartisan praise and whose term expired at the beginning of the year.
“It’s a really good move,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist who was the last Republican appointee to head the CBO. “He’s got exactly the right background you’d want. He’s got a research career. . . . He’s a thoughtful guy. He asks smart questions. He listens well.”
Holtz-Eakin said he expects Hall to make small changes to the office’s areas of emphasis in research but not radical ones. “He’s well within the mainstream of the economics profession,” Holz-Eakin said.
The CBO issues estimates of how proposed bills will affect the economy and the federal budget, and those estimates often stoke partisan anger. Under Elmendorf, the CBO faced deep clashes over its evaluation of the impact of the Affordable Care Act, although Elmendorf received plaudits from both sides for his stewardship of the office.
In Hall, Republicans have found an economist with government training similar to that of his three predecessors: Elmendorf, Peter Orszag and Holtz-Eakin. Republicans also have found a researcher whose writings suggest a skepticism of the economic benefits of some government regulations and safety-net programs.
Hall has argued in testimony to Congress that overly generous Social Security disability insurance may be drawing Americans out of the labor force, and that raising the federal minimum wage “may have the perverse and unintended effect of increasing income inequality” by raising the cost for companies to hire new workers. He has urged the Environmental Protection Agency to change the way it evaluates proposed regulations in order to account for more potential lost jobs.
“We need to make it easier, not harder, for companies to increase hiring,” he told a Senate hearing last year.
GOP leaders seemed to celebrate those views in announcing Hall’s appointment.
“His vast understanding of economic and labor market policy will be invaluable to the work of CBO,” House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) said in a statement, “and the important role it will continue to play as Congress seeks to enact policies that support a healthy and growing economy.”
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), the ranking minority member of the Budget Committee, criticized Hall’s appointment. “His opposition to increasing the minimum wage and his resistance to sound strategies for eliminating poverty place him outside the mainstream,” Sanders said in a statement.
Hall has defended Democrats in the past from conservative attacks. On the eve of the 2012 election, he dismissed allegations that the Obama administration had manipulated the monthly jobs report to show a large drop in unemployment. “Those numbers are very trustworthy,” he said, defending the BLS, the agency he had led until January of that year.
Former colleagues say Hall’s demeanor will wear well in his new job.
Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at Mercatus who co-authored several pieces with Hall in his time there, described him as “cool,” “measured” and “very reserved.”
“Keith is not a political guy, I think,” she said. “In my experience with him, it was never about Republicans versus Democrats. It was always about good economics versus bad economics.”