CBO: More Money Needed To Keep Up With Requests

Posted March 12, 2008 at 6:35pm

If lawmakers want timely cost estimates for hundreds of bills introduced each year, then the Congressional Budget Office needs more employees, the agency’s director said Wednesday.

Those new employees would cost Congress $2 million, a big chunk of the $5.4 million budget increase that the agency is requesting for fiscal 2009. And while the budget is tight, CBO chief Peter Orszag stressed the importance of a larger work force during his testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.

Many of the agency’s 770 formal estimates last year concerned health care — a top concern of many lawmakers. But the swell in that interest means the agency has had to take employees off other issues, Orszag said.

And more are still needed for health care.

“Health care costs are key to our fiscal future. They are rising rapidly,” he said. “I believe you all are not getting enough analysis on what can bend that curve.”

Since Orszag became head of the agency about a year ago, he has increased the number of employees working on health care from 30 to 45. Now he wants Congress to pay for 15 new employees, seven of whom would work on health issues.

Orszag admitted that Congress’ priorities can change quickly, meaning the focus of requests for budget estimates also could switch.

“Yes, there have been cycles in the past,” he said. “One of our concerns is that we’ll beef up in one area and then Members will say, ‘Oh no, that’s not important anymore.’”

But health care is an ongoing concern, he said, and the small agency needs more employees to churn out timely estimates on increasingly complex issues. Right now, the agency has 235 employees; the similar Office of Management and Budget, in the executive branch, has 480.

In total, the CBO is asking for about 15 percent more funding than provided in its 2008 budget. Like other legislative branch agencies, the CBO is trying to make up for two years’ operation under a bare-bones budget. In the past four years, Orszag said, the agency’s budget has risen by an annual average of less than 3 percent.

Still, 15 percent is a significant increase, and one that seemed to concern Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). In recent legislative branch budget hearings, Wasserman Schultz has emphasized the constraints of a tight budget and sought the baseline necessity for agencies.

On Wednesday, she cautioned the CBO and the Office of Compliance, which is asking for a 29 percent increase over its 2008 budget. The OOC hopes to hire a fire-safety engineer with some of the money in order to help solve ongoing fire and safety violations in the House and Senate.

“That is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible,” Wasserman Schultz said.

But subcommittee members focused mainly on the funding for the Library of Congress’ Open World Leadership Center, a program that brings “emerging leaders” from Russia and Eurasian countries to the United States to meet with their American counterparts.

Librarian of Congress James Billington, a renowned Russian scholar, helped start the program in 1999. But now Wasserman Schultz is expressing uncertainty over whether the legislative branch can continue to fund the bulk of its activities.

The center is asking for a 50 percent increase in its budget, for a total of $14 million. Last year, lawmakers tried to move the center and its budget over to the state department, but Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) strongly objected and the switch was delayed.

On March 31, the center will submit to Congress a report detailing the future of the program. And on Wednesday, Wasserman Schultz asked the center to identify other sources of income, while LaHood argued that keeping the center under the legislative branch ensures that it appears neutral and untainted by executive branch policies.

Currently, the center runs out of the LOC but is funded as a separate entity.

“If you were to put this program under the State Department, it would be tainted by their policies,” LaHood said. “This idea that is should go somewhere else is a big, big mistake.”