It appears my recent article, which raised questions about whether the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) illegally manipulated the budget baseline to ease the passage of an Obamacare “stability” bill, hit a nerve. To borrow a current metaphor, if there were any more collusion between the House Budget Committee and CBO on this issue, Rod Rosenstein would need to appoint a special counsel to investigate.
Consider a series of questions asked by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) at House Budget’s April 12 hearing on the new Budget and Economic Outlook. Black asked CBO Director Keith Hall about the agency’s treatment of the law’s cost-sharing reduction payments (CSRs), which President Trump cancelled in October.
Several elements of this exchange stand out.
- Black asked about this issue, and only this issue. After completing her exchange with Hall on CSRs, she yielded back more than half of the five minutes allotted to her for questions—an unusual occurrence. Think about it: How often have you seen members of Congress take two minutes to give a five-minute speech?
- Black began the exchange by asking Hall a very friendly, and some would argue leading, question: “Is CBO doing this [i.e., changing the budgetary baseline] in full compliance with” the law?
- In response, Hall looked down at his notes no fewer than seven times in a roughly 45-second response. Particularly during the seventh and final instance, Hall quite clearly appears to be reading from his briefing materials. Members of Congress often read questions at hearings, but in nearly 15 years of working on and around Capitol Hill, I can recall precious few times where witnesses read answers.
Based on these circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude that the exchange was scripted well in advance. If that’s the case, it appears Black, and whomever wrote her questions, worked with CBO to choreograph an exchange designed to rebut one of my allegations, namely, that CBO violated the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in making this budgetary change.
Mind you, the change does violate the law, Hall’s claims notwithstanding. CBO can claim that the budget baseline funds CSRs indirectly—via “higher premiums and larger premium tax credit subsidies”—only by assuming that Congress does not fund CSRs directly.
But the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act requires CBO to assume that “funding for entitlement authority is…adequate to make all payments required” (emphasis added). By assuming that Congress is not funding CSR payments directly, CBO has violated its statutory charge to assume funding to “make all payments.”
Later in the April 12 hearing, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) also queried Hall on the circumstances behind this questionable change.
Palmer asked Hall: “Why did you change that [i.e., raise the baseline]?…You would have had to have gotten instruction to” make the alteration. Hall didn’t directly answer the question: He claimed CBO had the authority to make the change, but never said where his instruction came from.
His instruction had to come from somewhere. As I noted in my initial article, Hall told both Republicans and Democrats at a January 30 House Budget Committee hearing that he would not alter the baseline with regard to CSRs unless and until he got instructions from the budget committees to do so.
But the budget committees already gave CBO instructions—which CBO suddenly chose to ignore. In an October estimate of Obamacare “stability” legislation, the budget office specifically said that “after consultation with the Budget Committees, CBO has not changed its baseline” to reflect the Trump administration’s cancellation of the CSR payments. Last week’s updated CBO document, which altered the budgetary baseline, said nothing about consultation with the budget committees—a break from the October precedent, and a direct violation of Hall’s promise in his January 30 testimony.
What changed? Did the CBO director just wake up one morning and decide to make a scoring change affecting $200 billion in taxpayer dollars? Or did someone pressure the CBO director to make that change—and if so, who?
If the House Budget Committee staff knows—and I’d bet they do—they certainly don’t want to say. At first my repeated e-mails to committee staff disappeared into dead air. Once I noted this radio silence on Twitter, I got a response, but not a substantive reply. The House Budget Committee’s communications director said my queries were within CBO’s purview, and sent me to them.
I followed up with a very specific question: Did House Budget hear from anyone at CBO about this scoring change prior to release of the revised baseline? As I noted in my e-mail to the committee, that question lies very clearly within its own purview, and it’s unclear why they would direct me to CBO on this issue, unless the goal is not to answer the question.
However, given the opaque and questionable way this budgetary change transpired, both CBO and House Budget have very clear reasons not to answer the question:
- If House Budget admits that CBO did reach out to them about this scoring change, that places the fingerprints of House leadership on a heavy-handed attempt to strong-arm CBO and alter scoring rules in a way that favors an Obamacare bailout—the issue I first wrote about back in January.
- If House Budget admits that CBO did not reach out to them about this scoring change, that means CBO “went rogue,” and increased spending on Obamacare subsidies by $194 billion without guidance or direction from the elected members of Congress who govern it. It also raises questions of whether Hall materially misled the Budget Committee (a felony offense) during his January 30 testimony.
Answering my question involves someone assuming responsibility for this mysterious occurrence. Because no one wants to assume responsibility for the chicanery behind this budget gimmick, apparently people think, or hope, that ignoring questions will make them go away. (I haven’t yet reached out to CBO for a comment, but anyone want to lay odds that their spokesman says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t disclose our communications with members of Congress”?) News flash: They’re not.
If CBO and House Budget are completely blameless, and everything about this budget change occurred in an above-board manner, they seem to have a funny way of going about proving their innocence—sidestepping questions. Not two months ago, Hall testified before the House Budget Committee about the ways CBO will improve transparency surrounding the budget process. If he wants to follow through on his promise, then Hall (to say nothing of House Budget) should start by disclosing exactly who ordered CBO to make this change—the sooner, the better.