Senate Finance Committee Chairman Baucus’ recent off-the-cuff remarks to CBO Director Elmendorf highlight the critical role the CBO will play in the coming health care debate as it evaluates and scores the various proposals. Senator Baucus also demonstrated the pressures the CBO is under, and the ease with which Members of Congress can appear to overstep themselves. Baucus told Director Elmendorf he has a moral duty to be “creative” so that CBO can deliver favorable budget estimates. That comment was improper and Chairman Baucus should “clarify” his position.
While the Senator almost certainly did not intend to leave the impression he was dictating to CBO, his remarks could be interpreted by some as suggesting the CBO cook the books to get the results necessary to pass legislation. To do so would not only kill health care reform, but it would destroy CBO’s reputation and usefulness. With Baucus’ words hanging in the air, to preserve the CBO’s effectiveness Director Elmendorf must now be doubly careful not to appear to lean toward those results Senator Baucus might find favorable.
Everyone involved in health care reform remembers how the CBO under Director Robert Reischauer delivered the coup de grace to the Clinton health care effort 16 years ago. Senator Baucus will play a pivotal role in the coming debate, and so his remarks have unfortunately elevated the pressure on CBO. He should clarify his remarks to reassure everyone involved, including the CBO Director, that his only intention was to underscore how important the CBO’s best work is to this process.