• Where’s the conservative counterpart to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities?

    On April 9th, Washington Post budget reporter Lori Montgomery prominently featured a new white paper criticizing the finances of health reform. Because the paper was written by Charles Blahous, a policy analyst approved in 2010 by President Obama as the Republican trustee for Medicare and Social Security, the story received widespread attention.

    Montgomery described the study thusly:

    [Blahous’s] analysis challenges the conventional wisdom that the health-care law, which calls for an expensive expansion of coverage for the uninsured beginning in 2014, will nonetheless reduce deficits by raising taxes and cutting payments to Medicare providers.

    The 2010 law does generate both savings and revenue. But much of that money will flow into the Medicare hospitalization trust fund — and, under law, the money must be used to pay years of additional benefits to those who are already insured. That means those savings would not be available to pay for expanding coverage for the uninsured.

    Jonathan Chait, Brian Beutler, and Ezra Klein argue that Blahous’s hefty white paper is really a numerical polemic that repackages arguments and budget information debated when the Affordable Care Act was passed two years ago. Talking with Chait, Blahous’s counterpart Democratic Medicare trustee (and 1989-95 Congressional Budget Office director) Robert Reischauer acerbically noted:

    Chuck’s ‘revelation’ is not a new charge.  Some argued this point when the ACA was enacted. It remains as misleading today as it did earlier.

    I agree with the critiques. I’m more struck by something organizational, not the rather familiar substance of these arguments….

    No one who follows such issues was surprised that Paul Van de Water of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities offered a detailed critique:

    …Until opponents of health reform latched onto the notion, no one accused CBO of faulty accounting.

    For example, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 — both of which Republican Congresses approved — included Medicare savings that were counted as reducing the deficit and improving Medicare’s financial outlook.  The Senate Republican Policy Committee rightly claimed credit for this result, and no one made charges of double-counting.

    And, just last month, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) touted how his budget plan would both “shore up Medicare” and reduce projected deficits.  No one discounted his Medicare savings because of supposed double-counting.

    No organization on the conservative side of the political spectrum was available to play a similar role in defending, refining, or rebutting these points. For example, Blahous released this paper via the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. That Center includes interesting scholars such as Tyler Cowen. Its focus is obviously quite different from CBPP’s focus on the mechanics of fiscal policy.

    CBPP is avowedly liberal. This perspective makes itself felt in many ways. Yet CBPP is different from many other liberal organizations. It plays a different role. Its comparative advantage resides in its ability to offer credible, technically tight analyses of public assistance, taxation, and deficit policy issues that policymakers, reporters, advocates, and researchers across the political spectrum could reliably turn to in understanding the financial impact of technical changes in food stamp policy or the budget impact of different inflation measures on Social Security benefits between now and 2050. CBPP has earned influence and genuine authority because performs these tasks well.

    Across the political spectrum, I can identify many talented individual scholars, policy wonks, and commentators. I really can’t identify a conservative counterpart to CBPP that plays a similar organizational role or has similar legitimacy on the nuts and bolts of its budget policy work. That’s not a role filled by CATO or by the Heritage Foundation. (A friend suggests that the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget sometimes plays this role.)

    When Republicans such as Paul Ryan offer budget proposals or describe the budget impact of proposed tax cuts, many people—liberals, of course, but also many others and most among the press—react with the sense that the numbers won’t quite add up. Critical details will be missing. Moreover, there will be few authoritative conservative sources available to explain how these details could be filled in or to identify the relevant tradeoffs.

    The same is true when Republicans wish to critique Democratic policies. I helped to cover health reform for the New Republic. When competing arguments emerged regarding the fiscal stability of the CLASS act, it was hard to identify a conservative organization with the expertise and the standing to challenge CBO estimates that, in fact, turned out to be over-optimistic.

    Both Democrats and Republicans have skilled political and policy advocates. Yet the two parties approach the craft of policy analysis rather differently these days. Since Democrats are the party of activist government, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Democrats place greater emphasis on the accompanying technocratic crafts.

    This difference in orientation is telling.  When Republicans recapture the presidency, in 2012 or later, they may wish to do more than overturn what they dislike from the Obama years. They may wish their team had credibly locked down the nuts and bolts of its policy agenda with greater granularity than they have done so far.


    • So… it looks like you are looking for a conservative organization to produce biased economic justifications for Republican ideology.
      I don’t think this is progress.
      The CBO provides technically competent analyses. One can always argue about their assumptions and they are attacked when people don’t like their numbers but I don’t think it is socially useful to look for another source of intentionally biased information cluttering up the blogosphere.
      Conservative “principles” seem to be: reduce the size of government by cutting the social safety net, bloat the military to protect “our” oil, protect the rich from taxes, protect corporations from regulations designed to protect health, safety and the environment. You can make economic arguments for all of these (less regulation increases corporate profitability by externalizing costs – we all bear the cost of ill health and pollution) but I doubt a “conservative” think tank would properly account for these externalized costs.
      Do we really need more biased analysis?

    • Nice post.

      While I trust the CBPP–and mind you its not because I have a background in economic analysis–its precisely because folks held in high esteem like yourself and others (left of center) give them the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. I also don’t note any disparaging of the organization in the press, which lends additional credibility. However, is that enough?

      We accept their bonafides, but is it really a bipartisan affair? Is the CBPP accepted across the aisle? Frankly, I dont know, and have never seen any conservative speak on their behalf. Maybe thats your point, but I would benefit in reading a right of center response on CBPP stature, yeah or nay.


      • In my experience, CBPP’s analysis is respected across the aisle.

        It’s true that CBPP is a strong supporter of the Dems. However, during the health reform debate, they went against the unions for making faulty arguments re the tax on high value health insurance plans (aka capping the tax deduction for health insurance). I know they do a lot of behind the scenes contacts as well – in fact, that’s their preferred MO. So, it’s not true that they’re solely a cheerleader for the Dems. Imo, that’s in stark contrast to, say, the Heritage Foundation.

        I guess I would submit AEI as their institutional counterpart on the right.

    • It doesn’t exist because for most conservative policies, you have to rely more on faith and dogma than evidence and realistic results. Anyone can make statistics into lies, but this isn’t really about statistics and this math doesn’t lie, only the assumptions do.

    • If Bruce Bartlett were an institute, I’d say he is your answer– clearly conservative guy who now makes a living on carving up misleading fiscal policy arguments from both sides of the aisle. But he’s not an institute– just a guy.
      Next best answer: the Tax Foundation.
      When it serves their purposes, they can serve up a mean debunking of misleading statistics. Which is exactly what I’d say about CBPP (including the first part). Both have their perspectives, and both will go to great lengths to take apart faulty or misleading arguments made by the other side. At the same time, both TF and CBPP will consistently turn a blind eye to faulty arguments being made by their allies on Capitol Hill. (In addition, TF will cheerfully generate their own misleading statistics on ‘tax freedom day,’ etc.)

      Concord Coalition and CRFB sometimes are valuable from a center/right perspective as well. While not the first guys to pull out the green eyeshades and debunk things, they do it sometimes, and do it well.

      By the way, have to disagree with the premise that CBPP are the be-all end-all here. At the end of the day, CBPP guys are cheerleading for Obama and Dems. By contrast, check out Citizens for Tax Justice, which doesn’t appear as afraid to say bad things about Dems when they chicken out on tax policy. See http://www.ctj.org/pdf/debtdeal.pdf , for example. Tax Policy Center (bloggers, anyway) are also terrific in an even-handed way. Start with TaxVox and CTJ for straight talk.