How Credible is the Congressional Budget Office?

In advance of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releasing its report on the proposed health care reform bill, White House officials and Republican proponents of the bill have begun to preemptively question the credibility of the CBO.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer argued:  “If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, pointed to the CBO’s assessment of Obamacare:  “If the CBO was right about Obamacare to begin with, there’d be 8 million more people on Obamacare today than there actually are“, and that “I love the folks at the CBO, they work really hard, they do, but sometimes we ask them to do stuff they’re not capable of doing, and estimating the impact of a bill of this size probably isn’t the – isn’t the best use of their time“.

They aren’t alone.  Gary Cohn and Paul Ryan have also made remarks minimizing the impact of the expected unfavourable CBO report, and the argument seems to be premised on the fact that the CBO overestimated the impact of Obamacare in the first place.  I’m not going to go into the mechanics of fact-checking the extent to which they’re right about the CBO getting Obamacare wrong – that has been fact-checked to death on other sites, with conclusions ranging from the claims being totally wrong, to assessments that claims like Mulvaney’s are literally correct, but not an accurate reflection of the circumstances of the CBO’s initial projections.

But the attacks on the CBO touch on the very heart of the Cult of Ignorance:  The CBO is a nonpartisan organization that has been providing expert assessments for over 40 years; they have a specific expertise in this field.  And yes, healthcare is complicated, and yes, projections are inherently limited, so we can’t reasonably expect the CBO to be 100% accurate.

But the CBO’s assessment is one of the most important sources of information available to policy makers:  They are non-partisan, they are objective, and they have relevant expertise to make these assessments.  So take their numbers with a grain of salt, but take everyone else’s assertions with a much larger grain of salt.

While Health Secretary Tom Price has stated that he firmly believes that “nobody will be worse off financially” under the Republican plan, and Paul Ryan and Jason Chaffetz have argued that any reduction in coverage will be a result of Americans freely ‘choosing’ not to have health coverage, one must question of the basis of these beliefs:  While Republicans are minimizing the CBO’s pending assessment of the bill on the basis that the subject matter is complicated, and therefore projections are difficult to make, the subtext is that we should therefore accept optimistic ‘beliefs’ of politicians and political appointees such as Tom Price, over reasoned analyses by the experts.  It’s a classic case of “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.”

When we compare Tom Price’s projections to those of the CBO, there are several differences that stand out that make the CBO’s pending forecasts objectively more credible than Tom Price’s.  The CBO is non-partisan, without a political agenda, and its forecasts are rooted in a careful expert analysis of relevant facts and principles.  Tom Price is partisan, has a political agenda, and his ‘firm belief’ appears to be more a matter of bald speculation than reasoned analysis.

The fact that the CBO’s numbers will ultimately be off to some extent or another doesn’t make them valueless, and certainly doesn’t reduce their value to be equal or less than Tom Price’s arbitrary assessment.  If the CBO ultimately projects that the new healthcare bill will increase premiums and force large numbers of people to lose their health coverage – as it’s widely anticipated that it will – then it’s worth taking that projection very seriously.

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