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The Congressional Budget Office: staying above the fray

Tracey Samuelson May 19, 2015
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The Congressional Budget Office: staying above the fray

Tracey Samuelson May 19, 2015
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Keith Hall, director of the Congressional Budget Office, will offer his first Senate testimony Tuesday since taking the helm of the nonpartisan agency in early April. It’s also the first oversight hearing for CBO in over three decades, according to the Senate Budget Committee.

The primary focus will be the agency’s 2016 budget, drafted under Hall’s predecessor.

While Congress often uses a director’s testimony to question the assumptions and findings of CBO reports, the agency refrains from offering policy recommendations, says Phil Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.

“I heard someone at CBO say once, ‘If you ask us how much something costs, we’ll tell you how much it costs. If you ask us whether it’s a good idea, we’ll tell you how much it costs,’” he says.

In fact, Joyce says it’s often members of the director’s own party who are most disappointed with the agency’s reports.

“It’s very much like being the referee in a college basketball game,” agrees Douglas Holtz-Eakin , who led the CBO from 2003 to 2005 and is now president of the conservative think tank American Action Forum. “There’s always a coach standing on the sidelines screaming at the referee, and it’s not usually over the call the referee just made. It’s over the next call. ‘Can we soften him up for the next call?’”

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