Outgoing Congressional Budget Office Director Keith Hall held his fire when the agency was under attack in 2017 for estimating that a repeal of the 2010 health care law would throw millions of people off health insurance.
Now that he is leaving the agency, he can speak more freely. In an interview in his office last week, Hall said if anyone is to blame for Republicans’ failure to repeal the health care law, it’s Republicans themselves.
“I made a real decision not to, in real time, defend our work because I really do think of us as referees or umpires,” said Hall, a Republican. He said the agency’s job is to provide its best analysis and let it stand on its own.
When Congress was fighting over whether to repeal the 2010 health care law in 2017, the CBO score made it harder to rally public support behind the initiative. Republican lawmakers ultimately were unable to pass a repeal in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“If I go back to that referee analogy, it’s a coach screaming at the referees, ‘You blew the game for me,’” Hall said about the complaints related to the health care bill score. “In fact, if you want to blame somebody — I’m on the way out so I can say this — if Congress really wanted to change Obamacare, they’re the ones that blew it with their process, not CBO. We just called it like we saw it.”
The CBO weathered a barrage of criticism in 2017 when it estimated that repealing the health care law would cause more than 20 million people to lose or drop health insurance. Repealing the law was a top priority for Republicans.
What made the attack unusual was that rather than just disagree with the analysis, White House officials accused the agency of being biased. Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s then-budget director, said at the time that the agency may no longer be needed, and that its day “has probably come and gone.”
The criticism prompted all eight previous CBO directors to come to the agency’s defense in a letter in which they voiced their “strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.”
‘Almost a no-brainer’
Hall said it should have been apparent, even without a CBO score, that scaling back subsidies that helped low-income people pay for health insurance would result in fewer people being covered. “That much is almost a no-brainer,” he said.
Hall said Republicans revealed little about their plan to repeal the health care law until they introduced the legislation. “There wasn’t much debate, there were no hearings, there was very little discussion about what the details were,” he said.
Democrats made a similar complaint at the time, noting that Democrat-led congressional committees held numerous hearings on their health care plan, running it through “regular order” before passing the law in 2010.
GOP lawmakers sought estimates from the CBO as they worked on their legislation, but prohibited the agency from sharing any of the details, Hall said.
Tough as that period was for the agency, Hall said the way the CBO did its job despite the criticism is an example of why he calls the organization a “real treasure.”
“I think one of the most important things about CBO is the culture of CBO,” he said. “We do very, very good work, we’re independent and we’re fearless.”
The nonpartisan agency was created in 1975 to provide Congress with objective, impartial information about budget and economic issues. Hall finished up his tenure as CBO director Friday and will be succeeded by Phillip Swagel, a University of Maryland economist whom Hall worked with when they both served in the George W. Bush administration.
Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, who took the lead in selecting the CBO director this year, chose not to reappoint Hall.
Looking back on some of his goals when he was appointed director in 2015, Hall said the agency’s progress in becoming more transparent “has exceeded my wildest dreams.” In a blog post, Hall describes the multifaceted approach the CBO has taken, including making more data and models available for public review and a greater emphasis on scrutinizing the accuracy of its projections.
Hall said he is thankful to have been allowed to stay at the agency for several months beyond the end of his term in January. He said it gave him time to see through the completion of a new model for evaluating health care legislation that he said was developed in an “unprecedentedly open process.”
Another priority was to strengthen the agency’s dynamic scoring process, or legislative cost estimates that take into account resulting changes in the economy.
That became more important after the GOP-controlled House adopted a rule requiring the CBO and Joint Committee on Taxation to produce a macroeconomic score of major legislation. Democrats were nervous about that, believing it could lead to overstating the benefits of tax cuts and giving short shrift to proposals favored by Democrats. The now Democrat-controlled House has since scuttled the rule.
Nevertheless, Hall says, “We did a good job of making both Republicans and Democrats comfortable with how we would do dynamic analysis and how we would report it.”
Hall was enthusiastic about serving for a second term, but Enzi opted to appoint a new CBO director. Enzi has not discussed his reasons, but a Budget Committee aide said the chairman “decided to move in a different direction for the CBO director position.” The aide denied the decision was based on Hall’s “not keeping Enzi in the loop on CBO activities,” as one source had previously said.
Hall said Enzi “didn’t really share much with me about why he made his decision, so I’ll let him answer that.”
But Hall said he’s “actually rather happy how it’s turned out.” He praised his successor, Swagel, as a “really good choice.”
Hall and Swagel talked occasionally when they worked in the Bush administration, where Hall served as chief economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisers and Swagel — who goes by “Phill” — was assistant secretary for economic policy at Treasury.
“When we started to go into the financial meltdown, started to go into the Great Recession, then it was getting pretty hard to get together on the economic forecast with some people a little more pessimistic than others,” Hall said. “I have to give Phill credit. I think he was a little bit more pessimistic than I was and maybe a little bit more right than I was because I think obviously we went into the Great Recession.”
Hall said one of the disappointments of his CBO tenure is that Congress has ignored the agency’s warnings to chart a path to reducing the growth of deficits and debt. The agency projects the deficit will hit $1 trillion in fiscal 2022, a level that hasn’t been seen since the years following the 2007-2009 recession. Government debt now tops $22 trillion.
“Where we are now is just unprecedented, to have this strong of economic growth and this much stimulus in the economy yet still run deficits as large as we have,” he said. “We’re trying to give them some tools that they can decide to use if they want.”