Why the CBO Scares Donald Trump

The president and his aides may prefer “alternative facts” to the real thing, but they also have little use for anyone else’s conclusions.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, speak to reporters outside the White House on Monday.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, speak to reporters outside the White House on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

The Trump administration declared its war against facts early, and with panache, with Press Secretary Sean Spicer striding to a podium the day after the inauguration to lay out a series of patently untrue assertions, and Kellyanne Conway christening them “alternative facts” the following day.

The White House’s disdain for facts has become such a given that it was quickly invoked to explain the administration’s broadside against the Congressional Budget Office, which began days before CBO had even completed its analysis of the House’s Obamacare replacement plan. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, for example, tweeted:

But the attempt to undermine CBO isn’t just about independent sources of information so much as independent conclusions. It represents a different war, or at least a different front, than the war on facts. It’s an assault on independent analysis.

CBO has long been an object of derision for partisans of both stripes who have quibbled with the methods the office has used to assess the cost of bills. In 2009, President Obama complained that the CBO was unwilling to credit the Democratic health plan with money the Democrats said the plan would save. Now-Speaker Paul Ryan, then the House budget chief, tried in 2014 to force CBO to change its methods to use “dynamic scoring,” taking into account projected macroeconomic effects of a bill. (For example, Republicans argued that tax cuts might reduce revenue up front, but would stimulate economic growth, thus producing greater revenue in the long term, a disputed claim.)

Some of the recent attacks are different in kind. Or, some are. Spicer told reporters, “If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place”—a classic sort of gripe about results. But Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s head of the Office of Management and Budget, said, “I love the folks at the CBO, they work really hard. They do. Sometimes we ask them to do stuff that they're not capable of doing.” In other words, CBO isn’t just wrong on the details here; it’s structurally incapable of producing analysis of bills like the health-care proposal.

Newt Gingrich, a close Trump ally whose lack of an official position allows (or encourages) him to make more extreme statements, went further. “They should abolish the Congressional Budget Office. It is corrupt. It is dishonest. It was totally wrong on ObamaCare by huge, huge margins,” he told Fox News. “I don't trust a single word they have published and I don't believe them.”

These attacks are hard to take at face value. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, “strenuously” disputes CBO’s approach to the bill. The current director of the CBO was chosen after Republicans pushed out the prior chief, a Democratic appointee, and chose Keith Hall. Hall’s selection was strongly backed by the Republican budget chief in the House, who said, “Keith Hall will bring an impressive level of economic expertise and experience to the Congressional Budget Office … His vast understanding of economic and labor market policy will be invaluable to the work of CBO and the important roll it will continue to play as Congress seeks to enact policies that support a healthy and growing economy.” That budget chief? Tom Price.

The fact that Democrats and Republicans each took issue with the specific methods is, arguably, a positive sign—CBO was created to produce nonpartisan analysis, so it would stand to reason that both parties would find CBO’s scores less accommodating of political priorities at times. The push to discredit, rather than reform, CBO, is more worrisome. (It is not entirely new—The Wall Street Journal proposed abolishing CBO in 2014.)

As Peter Suderman has written, the CBO was created because Congress grew increasingly fed up with the executive branch holding a monopoly on analysis of big-ticket items during the 1960s and 1970s:

This was the essential problem that Congress was trying to solve: a powerful executive branch with incentives to offer conveniently misleading, overly rosy projections about the costs and budgetary impacts of major federal expenses like war and entitlements. Congressional frustration boiled over during the Nixon administration in a dispute over impoundment (which as Joyce explains was less about spending limits and more about which branch had the authority to enforce spending limits), and the Congressional Budget Office was born.

Presumably making America great again does not entail emulating the worst excesses of the Vietnam era or the Nixon administration. Yet this is what the Trump White House is pushing toward: A return to a situation where there is no independent, nonpartisan arbiter for budget bills, and the president’s analysis has to be taken as granted. Given the White House’s difficulty with truthfulness, this is a questionable proposition.

CBO is just one front in the war on analysis. Intelligence is another. Trump spent months disputing the consensus judgment of the U.S. intelligence community about Russia’s role in hacks related to the election. He infamously speculated the perpetrator could have been a “guy sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.” He later tweeted, “Unless you catch ‘hackers’ in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking.” (Actual experts disputed this.) Trump later said he accepted the judgment, but has maintained a skepticism about intelligence conclusions. The result is the same: undermining the role of independent analysis within the government.

Other departments have been similarly undercut. The administration reportedly plans to cut the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Various Trump advisers spent months claiming the Bureau of Labor Statistics was untrustworthy. Trump’s fury that a federal judge could strike down his immigration executive order was similar: He believed he had, or ought to have, a monopoly on constitutional interpretation.

The immigration order is a good case study on the conflict between independent analysis and political imperatives, and the risk for Johnsonian and Nixonian abuses. After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the administration’s first attempt at an order, the White House assigned the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to ferret out evidence to back the conclusion, already reached without backing, that the seven countries from which Trump wanted to ban immigrants were particularly dangerous. So the agencies got to work. Their report, obtained by the Journal, “assesses that country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity,” just the opposite of what the White House sought. A senior administration official fumed: “The president asked for an intelligence assessment. This is not the intelligence assessment the president asked for.”

That response is, intentionally or not, quite revealing, showing how little regard the White House has for analysis that is not geared toward backing political positions. One needn’t go too far back in U.S. history to find an example of tragic results from a White House ordering up an intelligence assessment that matched its preconceived conclusions.

Does the fight against analysis matter any more than the disdain for facts? Both achieve the goal of muddying the waters, making the public question what reality is, and whether there even is such a thing. It’s true that, by and large, folks in bars in Ohio probably aren’t sitting around discussing the nuances of CBO’s scoring process. Yet one need look no further than the reaction to CBO’s estimate on Monday—with Republican members of Congress blanching, offering dire reactions, or simply running away—to see the the power that independent analysis has in discussion of policy among lawmakers. And given how bleak the CBO estimate was, it’s no wonder the Trump administration would rather not have to reckon with that.