The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congressional Budget Office is Freedom Caucus’s target in spending bill

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), center, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on July 12. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Conservative hard-liners in the House are hoping to gut the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan scorekeeper whose analysis has recently bedeviled Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, by amending a massive spending bill set to be debated later this week.

An amendment filed Monday by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) would eliminate the agency’s Budget Analysis Division, cutting 89 jobs and $15 million of the CBO’s proposed $48.5 million budget. A separate amendment filed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) would also eliminate the same division and specify that the CBO instead evaluate legislation “by facilitating and assimilating scoring data” compiled by four private think tanks — the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute.

Both Griffith and Meadows are members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, but complaints about the CBO have been widespread among Republicans in recent months after the agency found that various iterations of the party’s health-care legislation would result in an increase of more than 20 million uninsured Americans over the coming decade. Critics have attacked the CBO’s analysis and pointed to its projections on the Affordable Care Act as evidence that the office, now led by a Republican-selected director, cannot be trusted to accurately analyze complex legislation.

The criticism compelled the eight former directors of the CBO, which was created in 1974, to sign a letter Friday objecting to “recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.”

But conservatives say the CBO’s scorekeeping function is best left to other outlets.

“They’re the one group that makes a weatherman’s 10-day forecast look accurate,” said Meadows, the Freedom Caucus chairman, during a Monday appearance at the National Press Club. “There’s plenty of think tanks that are out there. And so we ought to take a score from Heritage, from AEI, from Brookings, from the Urban Institute and bring them together for a composite score that would represent a very wide swath of think tanks and their abilities. We think that’s a pragmatic way to use the private sector and yet let Congress depend on a score that is accurate.”

The White House has also attacked the CBO’s credibility as the health-care repeal effort has languished. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) at times has criticized the agency’s health-care estimates, but he also defended it from attacks last month, telling reporters that “it’s important that we have a referee.”

“It is important that we have a scorekeeper,” he said. “We can always complain about the nature of the score.”

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, slammed the amendments Monday. “The CBO is a long-respected institution whose rigorous analysis and reports are critical resources for Congress as we consider legislation that affects the lives of the American people,” he said. “These attacks should be beneath Congress. They need to stop.”

The amendments are being offered to a $790 billion spending bill that combines appropriations for the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Energy and for Congress itself that is scheduled to come to the House floor for debate on Wednesday. The bill was largely written by Republicans and is not expected to garner support from Democrats, meaning that even if it passes the House, it is unlikely to emerge from the Senate intact. But the CBO provision could become subject to negotiations if it is adopted in the House.

Both amendments take advantage of a recent change to House rules pushed by Griffith that allows any member to target discrete programs or even individual employees for reduction or elimination. The provision, known as the Holman rule, was in effect from 1876 until 1983.

“When someone gives you bad advice again and again, why would you trust them to help you make big decisions?” Griffith said in a statement explaining his amendment. “I believe Congress would be better served if CBO becomes an aggregator of predictions made by third-party public policy groups across the political spectrum, from left to center to right.”