Republicans try to punish CBO for telling the truth

The CBO [Congressional Budget Office] earned the ire of Republicans when it estimated that the GOP’s bill to repeal and/or replace Obamacare would take health insurance away from 25 million people. So, GOP Congressmen tried to retaliate. Taking a meat cleaver to CBO’s budget, they attempted to eliminate all 89 employees at CBO’s Budget Analysis Office, using the Holman Rule.

“The [Holman Rule] is a little-known relic from the 1870s [that] lets any member of the House make significant changes to agency functions or personnel through an amendment during the appropriations process,” says Federal News Radio in a July 25, 2017 report. “It was the first time lawmakers attempted to use the rule since the House reinstated it earlier this year.”

The Holman Rule essentially lets House lawmakers make changes to a federal employee’s salary or position without input from the appropriations committee. Members can debate these amendments on the House floor for a limited time…Congress hasn’t invoked the Holman Rule since 1983.

According to the Washington Post:

A separate amendment filed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) would also eliminate the same division and specify that the CBO instead evaluate legislation “by facilitating and assimilating scoring data” compiled by four private think tanks — the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute.

Of course, those are all private, conservative think tanks. And, essentially, Meadows’ idea is to outsource and privatize the process, calling it “a pragmatic way to use the private sector and yet let Congress depend on a score that is accurate.”

The CBO is known for its objectivity and non-partisan approach to its work. Congress established the CBO in 1974. On its own web page, CBO describes its birth this way: [Note the connection to Richard Nixon.]

Conflict between the legislative and executive branches reached a high point during the summer of 1974, when Members of Congress objected to President Richard Nixon’s threats to withhold Congressional appropriations for programs that were inconsistent with his policies (a process known as impoundment). The dispute led to the enactment of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 in July of that year.

Democrats representing areas around Washington DC blasted the vindictive amendment, calling it “part of a strategic assault on objectivity and expertise in the civil service.”

This is exactly what we worried about when Republicans reinstated this arcane rule in January,” members said in a joint statement. “The Holman Rule empowers members of Congress to target individual federal employees. The rule is being used to punish an important advisory body for doing its job by providing forecasts which some members now find inconvenient.

The Partnership on Government Oversight [POGO], a good-government non-profit group, said this about the proposed amendment:

Getting rid of the CBO would send a chilling message to all other independent offices, such as the Congressional Research Service or the Government Accountability Office, to tell Congress what it wants to hear or risk being closed,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said in a July 25 statement. “If there are legitimate concerns over the operation of the CBO, the solution is reform not decimation.”

Even the conservative National Review opposed Meadows’ idea.

“Congress shouldn’t abandon its brain,” wrote National Review:

…Meadows wants to turn the CBO into an “aggregator” of cost-and-benefit scores performed by private think tanks. In other words, Meadows wants the CBO to serve as a middleman and collect scores from nongovernmental organizations, many of which have an admitted ideological leaning, to create a “composite score” on which lawmakers would rely… If legislative cost estimates were outsourced to think tanks, Congress would give up a rare and vital source of internal, independent information.

Fortunately, this year’s Republican-sponsored CBO-retribution amendments failed after Democratic and Republican leaders of the Ways and Means Committee came out in support of the CBO:

“We rely on CBO’s analysts to provide fair, impartial and fact-based analysis,” said the committee leaders in a letter to their House colleagues.

In the end [ July 25, 2017], the budget cuts were defeated 314-107, and the staff cuts failed 309 -106, according to the House Office of the Clerk. Neither will be included in the Orwellian-titled “Make America Secure Appropriations Act” for fiscal 2018.

But they tried, and that in itself is important. While Donald Trump distracts us with outrageous tweets,  demagogic speeches, and White House staff wars, Republican apparatchiks in Congress are busily—cynically, gleefully—going about the business of undermining democracy one small chink at a time— mostly unnoticed. Thankfully, this effort failed. But It won’t be the last time they’ll try.