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CBO feels crush of health care requests

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President Obama's agenda has so overloaded Congress that its legislative gatekeepers - the analysts who score each bill and the auditors who weed out waste and fraud - can't keep up.

Repeated requests from lawmakers seeking to have their health care reform plans evaluated have overwhelmed the Congressional Budget Office, where some health analysts are putting in 100-hour workweeks. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' chief investigative arm, says it needs a baseline funding boost to keep the 144 staffers it added just to track waste and abuse from the $862 billion Recovery Act that was enacted last year.

"The almost-round-the-clock schedule maintained this past year by CBO's current staff cannot be maintained much longer," that agency's director, Douglas W. Elmendorf, testified Wednesday to a House Appropriations subcommittee as he made a pitch to add new staff to his stressed-out team.

Mr. Elmendorf said the work is so continuous that his computer technicians have a hard time finding a chance to update software, since someone is almost always using the system, even to work from home at night.

CBO and the much larger GAO are seeking significant budget increases in fiscal 2011 to handle the workload from Mr. Obama's expansive first-term proposals on health care, economic recovery, global warming and other issues, which Democrats on Capitol Hill are trying to push through Congress.

With about 20 percent of its staff dedicated to health care, the past year has been brutal for CBO. And Mr. Elmendorf said whether a bill passes or not, they expect the workload to remain high since lawmakers will continue to offer new bills on the subject. And if a law does get signed, the agency will have to monitor its effects on health care and the economy. He said they expect to submit roughly 600 official cost estimates to Congress in fiscal 2011.

For GAO, the big workload comes from tracking last year's Recovery Act, which accounts for most of the staff funding changes the agency is requesting, said acting Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro.

All told, GAO wants a budget of $601 million for next year, or an increase of nearly 8 percent. Mr. Dodaro said for every $1 they get, they deliver a return on investment of $80 by tracking fraud and recommending where government should be streamlined.

But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat, chairwoman of the legislative appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agencies, said GAO's increased spending "will be hard to manage in this fiscal environment."

Average Americans might be surprised at the extent to which CBO, which has the task of writing official cost estimates for bills, is key to just about every piece of legislation that moves through Congress.

Last year, CBO essentially killed the health care reform bill written by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, by calculating it would cost a net $1 trillion over 10 years but would still leave tens of millions uninsured.

And this week, House Democrats are anxiously awaiting the agency's calculations on the costs of a package of fixes to the Senate's health care bill. The final numbers will go a long way toward determining whether Democratic leaders can rally enough votes to pass the fixes.

But the pressure can sometimes lead to mistakes.

Mrs. Wasserman Schultz said an agency analyst recently jumped the gun by releasing a cost estimate, and several days later providing a substantially different number as a final estimate.

"Having confidence in your numbers is more important than speed," Mrs. Wasserman Schultz said.

A spokesman later explained that committee members were frustrated that the initial estimate wasn't labeled preliminary.

As CBO looks for new staffers, Mrs. Wasserman Schultz instructed Mr. Elmendorf to try to hire more women and minorities.

Mr. Elmendorf said they've tried, including recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, but said there aren't many U.S.-citizen women and minorities earning doctoral degrees in economics, which means the hiring pool is small.

Mrs. Wasserman Schultz told him he needs to start a program to get to children well before college, because by that age women and minorities have already decided against math and economics.

"You've got to reach down much further," she said, and directed CBO to take "a leadership role" in trying to raise awareness of math and economics as careers for women and minorities.

Further complicating CBO's staffing problems is a new rule that prohibits him from hiring foreign nationals, who make up about half of all economics Ph.D.s, Mr. Elmendorf said. He said the week that rule passed last year, it had to abruptly cancel interviews with four applicants who weren't U.S. citizens.

Both agencies strive to be scrupulously nonpartisan, which often means balancing the competing pressures from politicians, especially since both get so many requests for work they have to pick and choose.

Mr. Elmendorf said he has a chart divided into columns for House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats and lists the work he's doing at the request of each, so they can make sure no chamber or party is getting more work done for it than the others.

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