You can think of the OMB as the Red Sox to the CBO’s Yankees. They’re in the same league — assessing the likely outcomes of proposed legislation — but each team has its own style. (Players, however, may float from one team to another, as my Bloomberg View colleague Peter Orszag did from the CBO to the Obama White House.) The OMB is essentially a creature of the White House, which is to say, political. The CBO, on the other hand, stays so scrupulously out of politics that a running joke in Washington notes that its full name is the “nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office,” as journalists seem to automatically add the word.
Mulvaney’s broadside against the CBO claims that it’s not so nonpartisan at all. “If the same person is doing the score of undoing Obamacare who did the scoring of Obamacare in the first place,” he told the Washington Examiner, “my guess is that there is probably some sort of bias in favor of a government mandate.”
Is that a fair accusation? CBO analysts are people, not calculating machines; no matter how scrupulously they think they’re trying to be fair, it’s undoubtedly true that their own ideas and values are going to affect how they assess various pieces of research, the weights they put on different probabilities, and so forth. To that extent, Mulvaney’s point is inarguable: There is probably some sort of bias. Moreover, as uberwonk Yuval Levin has pointed out to me, the architects of Obamacare spent the better part of a year tossing ideas into the CBO model in order to see how they scored, and then taking out the stuff that didn’t score well, producing a program precision-tailored to the CBO’s scoring methods. So it may even be fair to say that CBO scoring is biased in favor of Obamacare.
To that I’d add an observation: There is something very weird going on with the CBO score of the American Health Care Act. Essentially, it suggests that the Republican health care plan offers almost zero net improvement over the pre-2013 status quo. And that finding is frankly unbelievable.
The AHCA, despite its many flaws, represents billions of dollars of subsidies compared to the pre-Obamacare era. I am as skeptical as the next pundit about the effectiveness of government subsidies. You would be hard-pressed to find very many pundits who have as little faith as I do in the curative power of government programs. But when you tell me that the government is going to spend tens of billions of dollars every year on premium tax credits, and almost no new people will get any insurance out of it? Well, I’m going to want some powerful proof of that proposition.
To be clear, I’m quite sure that the CBO is directionally right: Under the AHCA, we would spend less government money on health care, and the U.S. would have more uninsured people. But the CBO is not in the “direction” business; it provides precise point estimates. And I do not believe these estimates.