Non-Partisan in Name Only: Enemies of Social Justice Find a Friend in CBO Director Doug Elmendorf
July 2, 2010 - 4:24pm ET
Oh, what a difference a few months can make. Shortly before its final passage, the Congressional Budget Office announced that President Obama’s health care reform bill would be a huge deficit reducer. Under the directorship of Douglas Elmendorf, a fiscal conservative with consistently pessimistic budgetary predictions, the CBO projected $143 billion in savings from the bill in the first decade of its implementation and $1.2 trillion in savings in the following decade. Most of the savings would be achieved through a combination of waste cuts in Medicare and the adoption of more efficient medical delivery and payment practices. His words were enough to persuade some of the wayward fiscal conservatives in the Democratic caucus to support the bill and silence Republicans hell-bent on vilifying the bill as a spending boondoggle.
That was then, this is now. The Doug Elmendorf who testified at the open-door meeting of the President’s Fiscal Commission yesterday is telling a different tale than the one he told the President and the public last spring.
Elmendorf was there to present the CBO’s Long Term Budget Outlook for the next three decades. Since the last budget projections were in January, today’s projections were supposed to factor in the effects of the health care reform law passed this past March. But at the request of the archconservative privatization guru Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Elmendorf came to the commission hearing armed with a doomsday projection he called the “Alternative Policy Scenario.” In it, Elmendorf flip-flopped on his earlier assurances and insisted that the bill would save nothing from health care reform in the second decade of its implementation. Not a penny. Poof, and it’s gone. Just like that. To make matters worse, his dire projections also assumed that all but the Bush tax cuts for households making $250,000 and over would be renewed.
Elmendorf frequently likes to remind the Commission that he cannot make any policy recommendations in his capacity as an “impartial” technocrat. At one point, in response to a question by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) about what Congress should do regarding spending cuts during a recession, Elmendorf retorted cheekily, “‘Should’ is not a word the CBO uses. What Congress does is for Congress to decide.”
But Elmendorf seems to adhere to that principle only when it suits him. Elmendorf justified his more pessimistic predictions, for instance, on the basis that there was a feeling among “analysts” that Congress will not have the stomach to implement the politically fraught measures in the health care reform law that would be the biggest deficit reducers. In fact, what Elmendorf did was far worse than making policy recommendations to Congress. Rather than merely tell Congress what they should do, Elmendorf considered Congress’s future actions a foregone conclusion and made grandiose estimates on the basis of those assumptions. So much for impartiality.
Needless to say, Elmendorf’s back-tracking was more fuel for the fire of fiscal alarmism. Having secured the implicit imprimatur of Washington’s most celebrated numbers man, the deficit hawks on the Commission—Republican and Democrat alike—were audibly licking their chops at the prospect of finally inflicting the massive Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts that they have been countenancing longingly for decades. Rep. Ryan was all too effusive in his praise of the Alternative Scenario outlook, suggesting oh-so-coyly that it could have been even better—that is, more pessimistic—if it had factored in the drops in employer coverage that he expects will occur as a result of health care reform. (Ryan’s own highly sophisticated actuarial study amounted to “talking to a few business owners back in Wisconsin,” who said they maybe, might do that.)
Fortunately, there were a few heroic commissioners willing to stand up to Elmendorf’s skewed analysis. Leading the pack was Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who insisted that Elmendorf draft equally viable “alternative scenarios” positing how much worse the deficit might be if key elements of health care reform are repealed as Republicans have insisted will be done should they recapture the majority this fall. Why should one nebulous “alternative scenario” take precedence over countless others, she reasoned.
While Schakowsky was reprimanded by Commission Chairman Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) for not conforming to the “unanimous” agreement of the Commission to accept the CBO’s numbers unquestioningly, the authoritarianism of the Commission’s hawkish high-poobahs did not impede Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) from responding to Elmendorf even more vociferously.
Becerra (D-CA) invoked the human dimension of health care reform, reminding Elmendorf that whatever fiscal savings were attained would be well worth the inclusion of 25-30 million Americans into the ranks of the insured.
But it was Baucus who proved the most indignant. As Senate Finance Committee chairman, health care reform is Baucus’s baby, and billing it as a deficit reducer has been one of his chief points of pride. Baucus challenged Elmendorf to own his flip-flop, seizing on Elmendorf’s reliance on the guess work of anonymous “analysts.” “Analysts? What about you?” Baucus asked irritably. “You’re getting into the policy realm of what we will or will not do…So what if Congress has been slow to act in the past? We’re here to prove you wrong. I can’t count on the past.”
Baucus’s words are encouraging; he is no fire-breathing liberal, and yet he was willing to hold a fiscally conservative technocrat like Elmendorf accountable for his actions. But one dramatic stand in front of the cameras is not enough. Until progressives continue to expose the disingenuous "impartiality" of the CBO and other supposedly independent number crunchers, the deficit hawks in Congress and on the Fiscal Commission will be free to promote their harmful agenda under the protective cover of "non-partisanship."
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