Politics

House to Vote on CBO Staff Cuts

Appropriations amendment would eliminate budget analysis division

Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith, who led the effort to reintroduce the Holman rule, took the first crack at using it by offering an amendment to cut Congressional Budget Office staff. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House this week will vote on whether to eliminate the positions of 89 Congressional Budget Office employees in what will be its first vote under the so-called Holman rule that Republicans in the chamber reinstated on a trial basis earlier this year.

The Holman rule allows members to offer amendments to appropriations bills designed to reduce the scope and size of government.

Conservatives pushed for the rule, which was has not been used in decades, to be added into the House Rules package adopted at the beginning of this Congress. House Republicans were divided over the issue but ultimately decided to reinstate the rule on a one-year trial basis as a compromise.

Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith, who led the effort to reinstate the Holman rule, took the first crack at using it by offering an amendment to the appropriations minibus the House will begin debating Wednesday to drastically reduce the size of the Congressional Budget Office.

The amendment, which the Rules Committee made in order late Tuesday, would abolish the CBO’s budget analysis division, which it says is comprised of 89 employees with annual salaries aggregating $15 million. The division accounts for roughly one-third of CBO’s staff.

“It’s germane at this time with the scoring coming out on the AHCA,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, a co-sponsor of the amendment and a member of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, in reference to the House version of legislation to partially repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. “Either their process is flawed or it’s completely political.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, another co-sponsor of the amendment, said while the measure is a reaction to what he sees as the CBO’s flawed score of the health care bill and reflects worry about future scores on a tax overhaul bill and other legislation, it is about much more than that.

“It was CBO’s reluctance to change their erroneous forecasts from previous years and correct the assumptions that they’ve made,” the North Carolina Republican told Roll Call. “They continue to build a current score based off of the hypothesis that has already proven historically flawed and inaccurate.”

Meadows acknowledged the “high probability” the amendment will fail but said he hopes it calls attention to the need for the CBO to update its scoring methodology. 

First attempt 

Griffith’s amendment will be the House Republicans’ first attempt to use the reinstated Holman rule. And with uncertainty over whether any additional appropriations measures the House may take up in September would be open to amendment, it could be their last.

“It would be nice” to get to use the Holman rule, Griffith said in a brief interview with Roll Call on Tuesday.

Speaking before the Rules Committee decided to make the amendment in order, Griffith expressed doubt that it would be granted a vote.

“The Budget Committee is really nervous about it,” he said.

The Budget Committee has jurisdiction over CBO oversight. Members who did not want to see the Holman rule reinstated cited the skirting of committees of jurisdiction as one of their primary reasons for opposing it.

Under the Holman rule, any member can bypass the committees of jurisdiction and use the appropriations process to offer amendments directing cuts to government staff or salaries. It is still up to the Rules Committee whether to make such amendments in order and up to 218 members of the House to decide whether to adopt such amendments.

Griffith’s amendment is unlikely to get any support from Democrats and will likely face some opposition from Republicans concerned about the lack of debate on the idea, making it difficult to pass.

“I think it’s dangerous anytime you can punish individual employees just because you disagree with them. It’s a temptation that can be easily abused,” said Rep. Tom Cole, who led an unsuccessful effort to strip the Holman rule from the House rules package earlier this year.

The Oklahoma Republican said Griffith and the other Freedom Caucus members co-sponsoring his amendment are within their rights to offer it under the rules and he is fine holding a vote on it. However, Cole said he plans to vote against it.

Cole said Griffith’s amendment exemplifies his issue with the Holman rule and could help make the case, come next year, for ensuring it is not permanently resurrected after the one-year trial period is over.

“To me, this is really, it’s petty and arbitrary,” he said. “We’re not having a hearing. [The CBO employees] are not getting a chance to make their case. You don’t fire somebody that is sincerely doing their job just because you disagree with what they say.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, who worked with Cole to try to prevent Republicans from reinstating the Holman rule, said he had not seen Griffith’s amendment to comment on it specifically but that he has general concerns about the process under which the Holman rule allows members to propose cuts to government staff.

The Utah Republican said the debate process for an amendment is too speedy for thorough deliberation.

“Five minutes you speak on it to an empty chamber,” he said. “Somebody talks for five minutes against it to any empty chamber. You vote and then 430 people come in and look at the board and go, ‘Does anybody know what this does?’”

Freedom Caucus idea

Griffith said his amendment was born out of a discussion with Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus about the CBO.

They had the idea to cut CBO staff and have the congressional scorekeeper aggregate some of its budget analyses from work already conducted by outside groups. Griffith pointed out that it could work under the Holman rule.

Griffith’s amendment transfers the duties of the budget analysis division to the CBO director’s office.

A separate amendment Meadows offered specifically tasked the director with “assimilating scoring data compiled by the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute.”

Meadows’ amendment complied with the Holman rule but stepped too far out of the bounds of appropriations by dictating how CBO should analyze bills in the absence of the budget division. The Rules Committee did not make it in order. 

Former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan was also involved in the idea of CBO cuts and commended Griffith for figuring out that it was a good candidate for the using the Holman rule.

“This is a rule that the conference said we could have and there’s no one in all of Congress who knows the ins and outs of this better than Morgan Griffith,” the Ohio Republican said. “It is a good amendment.”

The fate of the Griffith amendment could ultimately become tied to the fate of the Holman rule being used in the future but the Freedom Caucus members who worked on it say it’s worth the risk.

“You've got to get started somewhere,” Perry said. “Some people said, ‘Look, this is kind of like putting your forces out there on a suicide mission.’ And I said, ‘No, this is probing the enemy to see what their capabilities are.’”

Meadows said just getting a vote on the amendment is “monumental” since the Holman rule has not been used in more than 35 years. The Griffith amendment is a limited use of the rule, and not an attempt target a ton of government agencies as critics feared, he said.

“I don’t think this is opening a Pandora’s box for unlimited use to a tool that should be used very rarely,” Meadows said. 

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