Roughing the Health-Care Ref

Article excerpt

Byline: Ezra Klein

The GOP tries to discredit a voice of neutrality.

We have entered the age of civility in American politics. Just last week, for instance, House Speaker John Boehner stopped calling the Democrats' health-care bill "job killing" and began calling it "job crushing." Say it with me: awww.

But there's one institution that has been civil all along: the Congressional Budget Office (sorry, but sometimes civility is boring). The nonpartisan agency, which calculates the official cost of legislation for Congress, speaks in the polite language of actuarial tables, refuses to reliably please either party, and is the closest thing American politics has to an umpire. And the Republicans are getting sick and tired of it.

The reason is the health-reform law. The CBO trashed the Democrats' first attempts at a fiscally responsible bill, refusing to agree that various technological improvements Democrats were making to the health-care system, like electronic records, would save the money Democrats said they would. That sent the Dems back to the drawing board--more than once. But they eventually came up with a blunter, surer financing strategy: about $500 billion in cuts and reforms to Medicare, and a similar amount in new taxes. It was proof that the system had worked--Democrats, despite knowing that the taxes and Medicare cuts would cause them political pain, were so intent on getting the Good Housekeeping Seal from the CBO that they truly made their bill fiscally responsible.

This left the Republicans in a bind. If the Democrats' legislation fulfilled its goal of covering almost every American and also managed to pay for itself, it was suddenly much harder to oppose. So last week, as the Republicans sought to make their case that the health-care bill should be repealed, a lot of their arguments were aimed at undercutting the numbers coming out of the CBO.

The agency's product is nothing more than "budget gimmicks, deceptive accounting, and implausible assumptions used to create the false impression of fiscal discipline," wrote conservative wonks Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Joseph Antos, and James C. Capretta in The Wall Street Journal. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) says the CBO's numbers are based on "smoke and mirrors." Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), angry that the CBO thinks tax cuts reduce tax revenues--no doubt it's also been known to say the sun rises in the east--has called for the agency to be abolished altogether. …