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."
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.
In its place, the GOP substituted their own analysis from the House Budget Committee that said the Obama plan actually carries a total price tag of $2.6 trillion and will add $701 billion to the deficit in its first 10 years.
"This health care bill will explode the deficit when you look at this thing honestly," said new House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.
Mr. Penner and Josh Gordon, policy director at the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, said criticism aimed at the latest CBO report is "misplaced" because the group never hides the fact that its estimates carry uncertainties.
"We firmly believe the CBO has been quite correct in nearly everything they've said about health care," Mr. Gordon said. "They've not only put specific estimates as they're supposed to, but many times they've indicated where the uncertainty lies in their analysis and how uncertain that analysis actually is."
In one example, CBO researchers said that for the health care law to reduce the deficit, Congress will have to allow deep cuts to existing medical programs — something that CBO warned could be unrealistic.
The dispute over the CBO forecast marked one of the first major public relations spats between the new Republican majority in the House and the returning Democratic majority in the Senate, and it threw a kink in the GOP's plans to fulfill their campaign pledge to repeal the law.
It also provided Democrats with an early opportunity to cast their legislative counterparts as hypocrites for violating their promise to rein in deficits and for ignoring reports that don't suit their political agenda.
"To show how misguided the new House Republicans are, for a long, long time, anything that was done that had any money connected with it had to have a CBO score," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. "They rejected that. They said no longer are we going to be bound by that."
Despite the flare-up over the CBO, Mr. Ryan and Sen. Kent Conrad, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, have made it clear that they appreciate the work of the CBO and the performance of its director, Doug Elmendorf.
House Speaker John A. Boehner's office also defended the CBO. "The Democratic leadership in the last Congress rigged the score by using budget gimmicks in the text they gave CBO," said Michael Steel, Mr. Boehner's spokesman. "That is not CBO's fault."
For now, though the CBO has taken shots, there is no obvious alternative to relying on its scores.
"It is easier to attack CBO because [they] can't defend themselves and when numbers are inconvenient," Mr. Gordon said. "If things aren't going well with your referee, you try to deflect some of the attention by attacking the ref instead of worrying what is happening on the field."
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