- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In rolling out their “Pledge to America” last year, House Republicans repeatedly cited Congressional Budget Office research as proof President Obama’s health care overhaul was too expensive. But when a new CBO analysis found that the GOP’s health law repeal bill would itself add billions to the deficit, Republican leaders dismissed the conclusions as irrelevant.

The conflicting responses highlight the difficult role Congress official scorekeeper fulfills and how quickly its stock can be battered by shifting political winds.

Part of the problem is that Congress has often played up CBO’s estimates as something they were never meant to be: indisputable fact.

“I think the real, fundamental problem, which unfortunately a lot of people are not that interested in, is that our Congress deals very badly with uncertainty,” said Rudolph G. Penner, who served as CBO director from 1983 to 1987.

“When you are at CBO, they demand getting an estimate that they then regard as being absolutely certain — no possibility for error at all.”

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, right, accompanied by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., holds a copy of a proposal to repeal the Health Care Bill, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, during news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, right, accompanied by House Majority Leader ... more >

Democrats have a more partisan take on the clash.

The CBO is “the referee, and, basically, the Republicans don’t like their verdict,” said Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Democrat. “So they want to fire the referee and make up their own numbers. That, by the way, leads to an ‘Alice in Wonderland’-style of fiscal discipline.”

Mr. Penner said the health care law projections carried an unusually large degree of uncertainty, making it hard to pin down the financial impact or dismiss projections.

“The estimates of something like this are very uncertain, and CBO warned about that,” Mr. Penner said. “There can be much disagreement as to what will happen if we actually go through with this program.”

In fact, the nonpartisan CBO’s original projections about some big programs have turned out to be wrong. In 2003, when Congress added prescription-drug coverage to Medicare, the budget office projected its 10-year cost at about $400 billion, but so far it is coming in well below that level.

As Congress‘ official scorekeeper, the agency tells lawmakers how much each bill will raise or lower spending and revenues, which determines whether the measure under review will add to the deficit — a huge question as lawmakers vow to tackle record federal red ink.

Lawmakers often run with the agency’s forecasts, touting them to sell various legislative proposals — especially when it suits their political needs.

But it’s been a different story when it comes to scoring President Obama’s health care overhaul, as Republicans have repeatedly brushed aside CBO projections that say the sweeping changes will reduce the deficit.

GOP leaders say the CBO, thanks to its governing rules, does not take into account the fact that the health care law is built in part on what Republicans say are budget gimmicks that hide the real cost of implementing the plan. The Democratic blueprint, they argue, also ignores double-counting of billions of dollars in “savings” from Social Security payroll taxes and Medicare cuts.

The pattern continued last week when GOP leaders dismissed CBO findings that said their first major bill, to repeal the health care law, would increase deficits by $230 billion over 10 years.

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