How two little-known offices will shape healthcare reform
As efforts to pass healthcare reform progress, more responsibilities are being placed on the Congressional Budget Office and the Senate Parliamentarian's Office – two institutions famous for their devotion to fairness and attention to detail.
The complex, highly partisan closing push for healthcare reform is, in many ways, coming down to two Washington institutions whose devotion to nonpartisanship and a mastery of the arcane make them virtually inside-the-Beltway priesthoods: the Congressional Budget Office and the Senate Parliamentarian’s Office.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The CBO will score how much the House "fixes" will actually cost the federal government. With many conservative Democrats wavering in their support for the bill precisely because of deficit concerns, the CBO's score will likely determine what gets passed and when.
The rulings of the Senate Parliamentarian, meanwhile, will shape the course of those fixes when they come to votes in the Senate.
Despite the enormous responsibility now heaped on these two offices, however, there has been barely a peep from either side of the aisle accusing either of mismanagement or partisanship. Even in highly partisan times, both retain a reputation for independence and a mastery of highly specialized data without peer.
“There’s so much credibility in the CBO and parliamentarian’s office, based on decades being consummate professionals, and that’s going to serve everyone well,” says Ralph Neas, CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care, which is lobbying for reform.
“We’re not talking about inexperienced rookies but the best-qualified people in the world to be in this situation, with decades of experience and thousands of tough decisions they have made,” he added.
The Congressional Budget Office
The CBO was created in the Budget Reform Act of 1974 to give Congress independent information and expertise in budget disputes with the White House. Strictly nonpartisan and famously impervious to leaks, CBO scores the cost of proposed legislation to the federal government.
But the heart of CBO’s value to Congress is the process leading up to those scores: staffers ask probing questions to clarify the purpose of legislation, and they have a robust back-and-forth with lawmakers to bring scores to an acceptable range.
“They go out of their way to not be part of the Washington scene," says federal budget expert Stan Collender, a partner at Qorvis Communications in Washington. "Some analysts have been there since the beginning – more than 30 years."
The business of economic projection is highly controversial. CBO and the White House Office of Management and Budget rarely agree on assumptions or projections. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle still commonly refer to the CBO as “the gold standard,” even when they don’t always agree with its conclusions.