Agency’s culture is “fearless” in producing scores and not worrying about the political consequences, outgoing director Keith Hall says.
Congressional Budget Office employees saw their new boss arrive this week with praise for their “high-quality analysis,” a day after their departing boss took an unusual shot at Republican lawmakers.
New director Phillip Swagel, in a blogpost titled “First Day at CBO,” announced how much he had admired the agency during his career in academia, at the Treasury Department, the Council of Economic Advisers, the International Monetary Fund and the Federal Reserve.
Swagel praised the outgoing Keith Hall—the ninth CBO director—whom Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., declined to reappoint. Swagel knew Hall while at Treasury when Hall was chief economist to the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.
Hall was more blunt in an interview published Monday with Roll Call, about how he’d been forced to bite his tongue over the past four years because of political attacks that accused his team of bias. Republican lawmakers such as Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and then-Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., (now acting White House chief of staff) castigated CBO for estimates such as those that showed a significant number of Americans would lose their health insurance if the Republican Congress repealed Obamacare.
Having been appointed by Republicans in 2015 in the hope that he would provide more “dynamic” economic scoring than Democratic-named predecessor Doug Elmendorf, Hall during his four years made a special effort at transparency in explaining the CBO’s methodology, which includes consultations with outside experts.
In his interview with Roll Call’s Paul W. Krawzak, Hall—noting that now he feels freer to speak—said, “If Congress really wanted to change Obamacare, they’re the ones that blew it with their process, not CBO. We just called it like we saw it.”
The complaints were “like a coach screaming at the referees, ‘You blew the game for me,’ ” Hall said. ”It was frustrating to remain silent when a lot of the criticism was just wrong, and some of it out of line,” he added.
The Republican House and Senate leaders as well as Budget Committee chairmen—as they renewed their years-old push to repeal the Affordable Care Act—insisted that his team work with them in secret. “There was not much debate, no hearings, and not much detail,” he said, which made their impact estimates more difficult. “I had a lot of bad interactions with Congress.”
CBO works best independently, Hall added, praising its culture as “fearless” in producing scores and not worrying about the political consequences. “One thing I’ve learned is not to keep score—our work stands on its own,” he said.
The big disappointment, Hall said—again flirting with personal recommendations in a job where that is discouraged—is the currently rising budget deficit. “It’s unprecedented, he told Roll Call. “And not sustainable.”
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