CBO transparency push isn’t political

Rep. Tim Murphy Member of Congress (R-PA)
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Some of the statements made to The Daily Caller by former Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin in the July 30th article “Former CBO director defends agency against transparency push” took me by surprise.

A little more than two months ago, my office worked directly with Holtz-Eakin to solicit his unique and valuable perspective on my CBO Transparency Act, which would require the CBO to publicly release all information and data used to score legislation.

Holtz-Eakin made one recommendation: protect proprietary data. Citing the scoring issues faced during the Medicare Part D legislative debate, Holtz-Eakin said CBO analysts had access to confidential drug sales data and if that information were to be made public, it would undermine the ability of the agency to produce accurate estimates. I understood and agreed, which is why I included a provision in my legislation to protect proprietary data. Clearly stated on page two: “[The CBO] shall not be required to post on its public website … any proprietary information utilized by the Congressional Budget Office obtained from a third party with whom there is an agreement not to release such information.”

With proprietary data protected, what is to be feared from an open and transparent CBO? My bill is based on a simple premise all of us learned in elementary math class: show your work. The CBO cost estimate is only as good as the data and assumptions it is based upon. So, minus the proprietary data, let’s see the data, formulas, and computations used to produce a CBO bill score.

Holtz-Eakin says transparency will hurt the agency’s ability to function because analysts must exercise judgment over uncomfortable and difficult subjects. He cites the example of forecasting casualty counts as part of a calculation into death benefits for fallen soldiers in Iraq. So how was that calculation made? Said Holtz-Eakin: “And I promise you, I don’t know how we did that. So we did our best. But the point is there is judgment.” Indeed.

The data used by CBO to come up with an estimate of death benefits should not be hidden from lawmakers or the public because the subject matter is uncomfortable, controversial, or difficult to compute. There’s nothing untoward about CBO analysts exercising judgment, provided the analysis is transparent, because it is the elected lawmakers, not CBO analysts, who must answer to constituents for the judgment we exercise in the votes we cast. So let’s see the analysis.

I fundamentally reject the claim that data transparency “endangers the capacity” of the CBO. My goal in subjecting CBO analysis to open review and public scrutiny is to help refine and improve the accuracy of estimates while avoiding notable miscalculations in past analyses. A University of Chicago researcher revealed in 2009 that the CBO had grossly underestimated potential savings from changes enacted by Congress to Medicare and Medicaid programs. These were not minor adjustments. The CBO overestimated the cost of Medicare Part D and wrongly predicted in the 1980s that spending on hospital stays under a new law would cost an extra $19 billion.

Instead of resisting transparency and scrutiny of its methods, the CBO should welcome a fair and public review. This legislation does not aim to bring down the CBO by pointing out cost estimate inaccuracies; rather my bill enhances the CBO’s credibility by buttressing the validity of its bill scores. Revealing the formulas and computations behind CBO decisions will shed light on the values and weight assigned to certain data. With this transparent information, Congress can produce better legislation to reduce our deficit, cut spending, and improve accountability in our government programs. In the end, the American people are demanding more transparency in government, not less.

Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican, represents Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.