Spare the Forecaster

House Speaker Newt Gingrich occasionally seems to have a talent for opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. Democrats love the show.

The latest example is his attack on the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This nonpartisan body predicts the future - always a hazardous occupation.

Included in its analysis for Congress are estimates, five years out and more, of federal spending and revenues, as well as the small difference between those two huge numbers - i.e., the budget deficit or surplus. When actual numbers become available, small miscalculations in revenue or spending forecasts are amplified as big errors in the budget balance.

In a letter to Rep. James Walsh (R) of New York, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing CBO funding, Mr. Gingrich said the agency's estimates "have been consistently wrong - and wrong by a country mile." He threatened the agency with a review of its "structure and funding."

Well, Gingrich is right on CBO estimates. They have overestimated the deficit in recent years and underestimated the surplus this year. So has the budget office at the White House. Estimates by private analysts have been more accurate, taking better account of extra revenues stemming from the bull market in stock prices.

But Gingrich's threat to the CBO is uncalled for. Congress itself has cheered the conservative estimating procedures of the CBO. In the past, Republicans often used CBO numbers to charge the White House with over-optimism in its budget projections. Indeed, the GOP leadership shut down the government three times in 1995 by insisting the White House use CBO figures in the budget process.

Gingrich's reason for pushing the CBO may be to get a higher budget surplus estimate. That might help him persuade other members of Congress on the merits of a big tax cut. The White House might then be pressured to approve using some of the surplus for a tax cut instead of saving the Social Security system.

"We do produce what we believe are honestly arrived at estimates," CBO director June O'Neill says. We believe her. Whatever the surplus, it does not justify Gingrich abusing the CBO.

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