How the Congressional Budget Office Earned Its Clout

By Juffras, Jason | The Public Manager, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

How the Congressional Budget Office Earned Its Clout


Juffras, Jason, The Public Manager


As Congress and President Obama raced to avoid defaulting on the nation's debt in the last week before the August 2, 2011, deadline, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) dealt a sharp setback to the debt-reduction bill advanced by House Speaker John Boehner. CBO trimmed Boehner's estimated savings of $1.2 trillion over 10 years to $850 million, forcing House Republicans to revise their plan. Congress and the president ultimately reached agreement with one day to spare, but only after CBO certified that the package would reduce the debt by at least $2.1 trillion over the next decade.

CBO was established by the Budget Act of 1974 to provide Congress with the budget expertise and independent analyses that would give legislators greater capacity to counter presidential budget power. In The Congressional Budget Office: Honest Numbers, Power, and Policy, University of Maryland professor Philip G. Joyce explains how CBO has met--if not exceeded--those expectations. He posits that the CBO serves not only as a check on presidential authority, but it also subjects legislative initiatives to tough scrutiny, as evidenced in this year's battle over the debt ceiling.

A budget expert who worked in CBO's special studies division from 1991 to 1995, Joyce is well positioned to give us a definitive, comprehensive review of CBO and its impact on federal policymaking. The Congressional Budget O ce tells an important story of a federal agency that works: CBO is respected for professional excellence, non-partisanship, and its willingness to "speak truth to power." In a time of widespread dissatisfaction with government, CBO provides a welcome reminder that government agencies can set and maintain high standards.

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Case Studies Trace CBO's Role

Joyce chronicles the history of this important office in a careful, thorough, and methodical fashion, based on archival research and interviews with more than 60 people (including six of CBO's eight directors) who have played central roles in national budget debates since the 1970s. He traces CBO's role in macrobudgeting (economic and budget forecasting), microbudgeting (cost estimates for legislation), and policy analysis. He uses the Clinton and Obama healthcare reform plans as case studies of CBO's involvement and influence in shaping major national policy decisions.

Joyce tells a sober yet uplifting story of leadership and vision, recounting how CBO's founding director, Alice Rivlin, made critical, probing, and even-handed analysis an intrinsic part of the institutional culture. While some powerful members of Congress envisioned CBO as a number-crunching staff arm of the newly-created budget committees, Rivlin insisted on a broader role, applying CBO's economic and budget expertise to a wide range of policy issues. CBO's skeptical 1977 analysis of President Carter's energy policy established CBO as an influential player in federal policy analysis. Appointed by Congressional Democratic leaders, Rivlin also built up CBO's credibility from the outset by casting the same critical eye on the policies of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan.

Although a determined leader like Rivlin can make the difference between mediocrity and excellence, subordinates and successors must follow in her path. Joyce explains in detail the contributions made by Other senior employees, by the die rent units of CBO, and by subsequent directors who ensured continuity in organizational structure, and analytic methods. The similar policies followed by "Republican" appointees Rudy Penner, June O'Neill, Dan Crippen, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and "Democrati" appointees Robert Reischauer, Peter Orszag, and Douglas Elmendorf allowed CBO to cement a reputation for neutral expertise, immune to political influence.

The Congressional Budget Office thus serves as a case study of how vulnerable public institutions can be. …

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