Friday, January 07, 2011

It's time to fix the CBO rules

Since the CBO is forced to analyze only the components of a new law that they are told to analyze and to assume whatever rosy assumptions that are built in the bill, the Republicans now have to argue that the CBO scoring of Obamacare is faulty and leaves out some of the real costs, such as the the doc fix, and counts some of the revenue twice. They're right, of course, but it is a difficult debate for many people to follow. Even Douglas Elmendorf, the present head of the CBO notes these problems. Kevin Williamson explains what is really going on.
First, it is worth asking how complete and how accurate the CBO’s estimates are. You know who has some useful insights into that question? The CBO. For instance, CBO director Douglas Elmendorf readily concedes that “estimates of the effects of comprehensive reforms are clearly very uncertain, and the actual outcomes will surely differ from our estimates in one direction or another.” One direction or another. (Guess!) It will not come as a shock to observers of federal activities ranging from the ethanol program to the Iraq war that — unthinkable as it may seem — a government program may under some circumstances exceed its budget. If Obamacare spends not a nickel more than the CBO estimates, and if Obamacare produces every dime of the revenue promised, then it will prove a deficit-reduction tool over the next decade, by definition: That’s $411 billion in spending and $525 billion in revenue. I wonder if Ezra Klein would like to place a very large bet with his own money on the possibility of that happening. I would. In fact, I am willing to bet not only that there will be significant variation, I am willing to bet on the direction of that variation, at least insofar as the spending goes. (I would not be surprised if revenue projections fell short, too: Those tax increases are going to be even less popular when people start paying them.)

You know who seems sympathetic to my position? Douglas Elmendorf of the CBO, who writes: “CBO’s cost estimate noted that the legislation maintains and puts into effect a number of policies that might be difficult to sustain over a long period of time. For example, the legislation reduces the growth rate of Medicare spending (per beneficiary, adjusting for overall inflation) from about 4 percent per year for the past two decades to about 2 percent per year for the next two decades. It is unclear whether such a reduction can be achieved, and, if so, whether it would be through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or through reductions in access to care or the quality of care. The legislation also indexes exchange subsidies at a lower rate after 2018, and it establishes a tax on insurance plans with relatively high premiums in 2018 and (beginning in 2020) indexes the tax thresholds to general inflation.”

Take a look at the 1965 cost and revenue projections for Medicare and compare them to the reality of Medicare today. In 1965, Medicare was going to be totally solvent on a 1 percent payroll tax. How’d that work out? (links in the original)

Read the rest for an explanation of how bogus those CBO projections are. What the Republicans should do first is submit their own request to the CBO to score Obamacare realistically. Then they should get started amending how the CBO works so that it isn't bound by the ol' Garbage in, Garbage out rules under which it now operates.