Trust the CBO

The CBO released a projection of what would happen if members of Congress passed and the President signed the American Healthcare Act (AHCA). Andrew has written a few excellent posts on the score and the Republican’s political strategy, but I want to make the short point in the title of this post.

Normally, defending the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) would be unnecessary and boring. Congress’ instrumentality rarely makes news. Unfortunately, in the run up to the release of this projection, Republicans in Congress and the White House have attempted to discredit the CBO. It is worth quickly listing the main reasons Americans have to trust projections from the CBO. By trust, I mean “use to evaluate policy.” Projections are inaccurate, by definition: they are produced with error in mind. But projections can be motivated and used to deceive. So, when I say that I trust the CBO, it means I believe the error in their projection isn’t driven by anything other than an honest effort to come up with an accurate projection.

  1. The CBO is not running for re-election. If the AHCA is enacted, members of Congress may delay its implementation (especially after the projection released today). The same thing was done for many components of Obamacare. This creates uncertainty about the consequences of the bill, which means that members of Congress have the incentive (and the opportunity) to control the narrative. They will do this by citing projections. Democrats will claim the AHCA is a catastrophe, Republicans will claim it is a dramatic success. This situation was reversed in 2010. The CBO is paid to provide expertise. They don’t need to run for re-election. Their existence is not tied to public sentiment about the bill.
  2. The CBO does not require advertising revenue to stay in operation. It is common for news organizations to report headline-grabbing projections. The business model of many news sites requires a constant stream of stories that garner “clicks.” Reporting that millions of people will be uninsured, or that billions of dollars will be saved, may be the kind of thing that does that. The finer details of the projections, however, will be buried in-text long after most consumers stop reading (if they are included at all).
  3. People who work at the CBO have as much disdain for political shenanigans as you do. The women and men who work at the CBO are not ideologues. They dislike loopholes in budget rules, rosy projections, political props, games, and blame-shifting. In fact, the CBO was created in response to President Nixon’s threat to impound appropriations during the 1970s. It exists because politicians bend or disregard the rules they write for themselves. The AHCA score – oddly enough – is one such example. Congress created a non-partisan agency to project the impact of pending legislation, now members of Congress and the White House would like you to disregard it.


The CBO has no reason to deceive Americans. It sometimes misses the mark, but it does its job with integrity, which is more than can be said for the unfortunate number of politicians currently trying to discredit it.



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