- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Congress’ chief scorekeeper said Wednesday it botched some of its original Obamacare estimates, and its employees have to make “trade-offs” as they confront the heavy workload from lawmakers.

Keith Hall, director of the Congressional Budget Office, said they were off in their guess for enrollment in Obamacare’s exchanges, though he said so were other analysts.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to estimate these things,” Mr. Hall said Wednesday. “Certainly with the exchanges, we were off — we weren’t as far off on things like the actual spending, some other things — but everybody else was as well. We can be off and we can be wrong, but hopefully we’re not consistently wrong,” he said.

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The CBO serves as Congress’ gatekeeper for budget matters, with its estimates often serving to boost or derail major bills.

In 2017, the office provided Congress with more than 900 formal cost estimates and statements, scorekeeping updates and analytical reports and working papers, on top of thousands of informal cost estimates and other publications.

“We get way more work than we [could] possibly handle,” Mr. Hall told the Senate Budget Committee.

Lawmakers and outside analysts are generally complimentary of CBO’s regular forecasts on the federal budget, spending, and the country’s long-term fiscal picture.

Obamacare was a particularly challenging set of calculations for the CBO, dealing with a giant portion of the U.S. economy and involving tricky predictions about how Americans would respond to changes in the law.

Republicans said the CBO was wrong about its initial guesses in 2010 on Obamacare enrollment, and complained that the scorekeeper would be wrong again when it predicted millions of people would drop coverage in response to Republicans’ repeal-and-replace push last year.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said senators were looking for CBO analysts at one point last year to justify their predictions that people would give up Medicaid coverage because of the GOP bill — particularly after the budget agency had trouble predicting states’ behavior on Medicaid from the original Obamacare estimates.

Mr. Cotton said analysts indicated they were relying on states’ past history, but weren’t able to provide more definitive answers on their predictions.

“I found that pretty astonishing,” Mr. Cotton said. “At root, that’s more of a political judgment than it is an economic assessment, and there’s just no good explanation for why they reached that conclusion.”

Mr. Hall said his analysts tried to group states into “buckets” that were more or less likely to expand Medicaid.

Mr. Cotton said the CBO should provide an explanation to the public to increase transparency and reduce confusion.

“We only have so many people, so much time, that these are trade-offs,” Mr. Hall said. “But if you all want more time spent on that sort of transparency, we’ll do it.”

Mr. Hall said the CBO’s 2019 budget request would include eight additional staff members to the approximately 230-member office, which could result in quicker response times to lawmakers’ requests and more transparency on how the agency reaches their conclusions.

But he also said the current stopgap nature of government spending is hamstringing the agency’s ability to plan ahead.

“We’ll probably have to cancel some training, travel and that sort of thing,” he said. “So it does have a consequence for us. It does sort of degrade our performance.”

Democrats defended the agency, saying an imperfect referee is better than none at all.

“I think under a lot of pressure, your agency is trying to do the objective work that is expected of you, and that I hope some of my colleagues would refrain from attacking the agency because the results that you produce are not something that they are comfortable with,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the committee’s ranking member.

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