The House Budget Committee took a ceremonial voice vote Tuesday to confirm Syracuse University economics professor Douglas Holtz-Eakin as the new director of the Congressional Budget Office. It was ceremonial because the committee lacks the power to overturn the appointment of Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). Ranking member John Spratt (D-S.C.) said that if the vote meant anything, he would have voted “present.” So would we.
As Spratt noted, this is not because he doubts Holtz-Eakin’s credentials as an economist or his honesty in making budgetary calls. Rather, Spratt expressed concern because Holtz-Eakin is moving to Capitol Hill directly from the staff of Glenn Hubbard, President Bush’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. As such, Spratt said, Holtz-Eakin is “bound to have affinities, allegiances and friendships” with the Bush staff and “may not have the independence and autonomy we need.”
Another major item of concern to Democrats is the oft-stated insistence of Nussle and other Republicans that CBO engage in so-called “dynamic scoring” of tax cuts out of a belief that they will so stimulate economic activity that they’ll ultimately increase government revenue rather than diminish it. CBO traditionally practices what Republicans disparage as “static scoring,” counting tax cuts as revenue reducers, not gainers. Nussle’s unhappiness with former CBO chief Dan Crippen, a Republican, for saying he didn’t know how to do dynamic scoring contributed to his not being reappointed to a second term.
Nussle himself said, “I’m not sure that anyone can define dynamic scoring” and claimed a CBO director’s views on the matter did not constitute a “litmus test.” We are somewhat reassured by testimony that Holtz-Eakin wrote for Hubbard last May before the Ways and Means Committee, in which Hubbard said that while dynamic scoring is “conceptually correct,” implementing it is “fraught with difficulty.” Even though “dynamic” thinking is the very basis of the Bush administration’s economic plan — “aerodynamic,” Roll Call Contributing Writer Norman J. Ornstein called it last week — Hubbard said it should be used as a “supplement to (as opposed to a substitute for) current procedures.”
As CBO’s Web site observes, the agency’s job is to “provide the Congress with the objective, timely, nonpartisan analyses needed for economic and budget decisions and with the information and estimates required for the Congressional budget processes.” Past directors — Alice Rivlin, Robert Reischauer, Rudolph Penner, June O’Neill and Dan Crippen — have fulfilled the mission with distinction and, sometimes, courage. We hope that Holtz-Eakin will follow their example and that we can shortly change our vote from “present” to “aye.” And, when Republicans get around to naming a new staff director for Congress’ other “score-settling” panel, the Joint Taxation Committee, we hope that “aye” will be an easy call.