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Tax Bill Delays Release of CBO Annual Budget Outlook

Posted on January 25, 2018 by David van den Berg

On the same day its director sought more funding from Congress for staffing and transparency efforts, the Congressional Budget Office announced that the release of its annual budget and economic outlook would be delayed.

The CBO is working to incorporate the effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (P.L. 115-97) into its economic forecast and baseline, but doing so involves a complex and lengthy process, CBO Director Keith Hall said in a January 24 statement about the delay.

The budget forecast is typically released in January, and Hall offered no timeline for the delayed report. However, he quoted a letter sent the previous day by the House and Senate Budget committee chairs acknowledging that a forecast incorporating the tax bill’s effects and other recent congressional spending decisions “cannot be produced by the February 15 statutory deadline specified in the Budget Act, or even a few weeks thereafter.”

Hall also testified January 24 at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on oversight of his agency, saying that funding at levels prescribed by the current continuing resolution degrades the Congressional Budget Office’s performance and that the office needs more staff to fulfill lawmaker requests.

The CBO can make “significant progress” on plans to bolster responsiveness and transparency if lawmakers provide funding for fiscal 2018 in a range between the Senate and House Appropriations committees’ respective recommendations of $48.1 billion and $48.5 billion, Hall said the Senate Budget hearing. Both of those committees passed their separate fiscal 2018 legislative branch appropriations bills in July 2017, but neither received a vote in their respective chambers.

In June testimony before the Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, Hall said his office needed $49.9 million for fiscal 2018 to offset personnel costs and a major upgrade of its computer systems.

The CBO has already made operational adjustments in response to its current budget, and if the government continues operating under continuing resolutions, the office will likely have to curtail its hiring, Hall told the Budget Committee. “We’ll have to move down a few slots,” he said. “We’ll probably have to cancel some training and travel and that sort of thing.”

Hall noted that the CBO has submitted a budget request to hire eight workers in 2019 to increase its responsiveness and transparency as part of a plan to hire 20 additional people in total by 2021. The agency is putting a “special emphasis” on analysis of federal healthcare spending and expanded access to data and has already shifted resources to strengthen its efforts in those areas, he said.

The CBO is also “actively exploring” ways to provide lawmakers more information about its modeling, such as providing more public documentation and writing accessible source code for computer programs used in analyses, Hall said.

“Additional funding would help CBO provide more information about models that examine health insurance coverage, the individual income tax system, labor force participation, how changes in the economy affect the budget, and many other issues,” Hall testified.

Congressional Republicans recently criticized the CBO and called for greater transparency from it. In July the House defeated a measure offered by members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus that would have slashed the agency’s funding and eliminated its data analysis division, which produces scoring estimates for tax and spending bills. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., caucus chair, contended that the agency’s estimates are inaccurate and that a panel of outside groups could instead provide analyses. And in August, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the CBO Show Your Work Act (S. 1746), which would require the CBO to disclose its data, models, and all computational details.

Being more transparent produces costs and provides benefits, and the CBO has to weigh those trade-offs in its decision-making, Hall said in response to questions about the Lee proposal and its House companion (H.R. 3822), introduced by Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio. “We have some ideas on being more transparent,” he said. “We’re calling them pilots, in a sense, because we want to try them and sort of see how that’s received by Congress, see if that’s the sort of transparency that you’re most interested in.”

While praising the CBO and acknowledging the pressure it faces, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said the agency still needs to produce its work faster and with greater clarity.

“I think you’ve identified the two biggest problems I think that we have, is the responsiveness and the transparency,” Hall responded. “And unfortunately, they sometimes collide with fixed resources.”

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