According to President Obama’s televised remarks, he recently met with Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Doug Elmendorf to discuss health care reform. Of course, the President may desire to meet with anyone if he believes such a meeting can help advance his agenda. However, it is extremely disturbing for a senior staff person employed by the Legislative branch of our government to be meeting with the head of the Executive branch, most especially at a time when the CBO is among the most key participants in the ongoing health care reform debate.
The CBO was established to provide the Congress with independent, non-partisan analysis of the state of the economy, the budget outlook, budget options, and the budgetary effects of legislation under consideration by the Congress. It is an institution within the Legislative branch. CBO has worked hard, often under difficult circumstances, to establish its expertise, its independence, and its non-partisan credentials under Democratic and Republican leadership.
Of course, conversations occur between CBO and OMB staff regarding technical matters and various logistical issues. But historically, the OMB and the White House have been careful not to overstep this relationship to impugn the independence of the CBO. Likewise, CBO staff and Directors have carefully guarded their reputations against undue pressure from their congressional masters or their Executive Branch colleagues. Until now.
The nation is in the midst of a vital debate over health care reform. Much is at issue; much is at risk. At the center of the storm is how the CBO interprets the many provisions in the competing legislation, and how these interpretations are translated into annual and 10-year projections of budgetary consequences. An unfavorable score can and has sunk past legislative efforts, the most noteworthy being the CBO torpedo into the side of Hillarycare in 1994.
Under any circumstances, but especially under the current circumstances, a meeting between the President and the CBO Director is inappropriate and a serious violation of the unwritten protocol surrounding CBO proprieties. Director Elmendorf should have known better, and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, himself a former CBO Director, should certainly have known better. This meeting raises serious questions about CBO’s objectivity and impartiality going forward. The CBO will now have to be especially careful to demonstrate its independence, to show it is not bowing to the President’s wishes. It must re-establish its reputation. But this time, it has to prevent a debate–one about its own fidelity– from becoming a stumbling block to health care reform.