- - Thursday, January 19, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Donald Trump promises change on a scale seldom seen in Washington. Whether his campaign to “Make America great again” succeeds depends a great deal on whether he can bend the bureaucratic institutions that make up the federal government to his will.

He’ll need help, and lots of it. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can do a lot, but Mr. Trump is driving the train. Right now the country seems to be with him more than with congressional leaders. That’s probably because he’s listening to the people, and the people only hear the policy wonks chattering about how hard it’s going to be to do the things he promised he could and would do, beginning with Obamacare, and replacing it with something that actually works.

Messrs. Ryan and McConnell will have the job of turning things around on Capitol Hill. They must transform their chambers into a “Can Do” Congress — not a rubber stamp Congress, but not a “do-nothing Congress,” in Harry Truman’s famous put-down of a Congress that had not done very much. That means eliminating institutional barriers to reform, beginning with the Congressional Budget Office itself.

When it was established in the mid-1970s, the Congressional Budget Office, or the CBO, was commissioned to provide non-partisan estimates of what proposed legislation would cost the taxpayer. It hasn’t lived up to its promise. Newt Gingrich says that “in the four years during which I was Speaker of the House, the CBO was consistently difficult to work with. If we hadn’t fought with them constantly we would never have balanced the budget.”

The CBO enlisted the man described as the “architect of Obamacare” to help Congress calculate how much the health-care scheme would cost. The estimate was so distant from reality that congressional skeptics suggested the numbers might have been deliberately cooked. The agency’s reputation for nonpartisanship was fried to a crisp in the swamp the new president promises to drain.

How Congress will determine the cost of new legislation in a post-CBO environment is always important. The speaker and the majority leader could begin reform by requiring the CBO to explain how it calculates its estimates. Its methodology is a well-kept secret. If proposed legislation was posted on the internet before Congress takes it up a larger number of plain citizens could take up the “scoring,” which measures what the legislation can be expected to accomplish and how much it will cost.

Competition might produce accurate numbers. The President’s Office of Management and Budget can do the scoring, to begin with. It’s not necessarily important who does the scoring. What counts is getting the numbers right.

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