Friday, January 21, 2011

Republicans undermining the Congressional Budget Office

Ezra Klein on Republican efforts to undermine the credibility of the CBO:
But beneath it is something more insidious: an effort to discredit the last truly neutral, truly respected scorekeeper in Washington. The facts don't support the particular case the Republicans want to make, so they're trying to take down the people who supply the facts. But once that's done, it can't easily be undone. And the true loser will be the very thing Republicans claim to care most about: the deficit.

If getting the CBO's seal of approval ceases to matter, then political parties will cease to try. That's when the "smoke and mirrors" will really begin: when bills just have to sound good rather than pencil out. When there are no skeptical budget experts sending legislation back to the authors with a note that says, "Sorry, not there yet." When policy debates are decided by who can yell the loudest rather than who can write the best bill.

I am deeply suspicious of deficit hawkery in general. When I hear someone wax doom-and-gloomy about the defecit, I brace myself for the inevitably regressive "fix" they subsequently suggest. How refreshing it would be if "fiscal conservatives" talked about returning the top income tax rates to what they were in the 90's, or closing the hedge fund manager salary loophole, or reducing our global military footprint! Too many times "fiscal conservatism" has been invoked to block or reduce progressive measures (we must raise the Social Security retirement age!), but somehow these concerns evaporate when it comes to lowering the estate tax or engaging in costly overseas occupations. If the deficit is such a crisis, then surely returning the top marginal rate to 39% from 36% should at least be on the table. If it isn't, then please don't ask me to take your concern about the deficit seriously.

But we do need to know how much things will cost. Because we have to be able to determine whether something is worth the additional spending. And the CBO, though certainly not flawless, is at least a good attempt at getting such numbers. So it's sad to see such an institution attacked. If you think their methodology is bad, that's one thing. Criticize it. Come up with a better methodology and argue why you're right. But the idea that we shouldn't have such an organization and that Democrats and Republicans should be able to come up with their own numbers for the costs of their bills seems like a very bad idea to me.

By the way, the people who lend the US government money don't seem that fazed by the budget deficit: the ten-year T-bill is currently yielding 3.47%. That means people are willing to lend money to Uncle Sam at 3.47%. Which means they're pretty damn sure they're going to get paid. I can't get that kind of rate, even if I put up my house as collateral. I think Congress will actually really start caring about the deficit when the people lending money to the government start caring about it, and showing that care by charging higher rates.

I am far more concerned about the massive unemployment this country is facing, which nobody seems to think is a crisis. (Of course, I have a personal stake in this country's unemployment rate, and am doing my best to reduce it ever-so-slightly by getting a job.)


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