C.B.O. Head, Who Prizes Nonpartisanship, Finds Work Under G.O.P. Attack
The Congressional Budget Office, a provider of cost estimates for legislation, has been under intense pressure from top Trump administration officials.
WASHINGTON — When much of Washington was glued to the testimony of former F.B.I. director James B. Comey this month, Keith Hall, the head of the Congressional Budget Office, was one of the few who averted their eyes from televisions.
For Mr. Hall, avoiding political spectacles — anything politically partisan, really — has become second nature. On his commute to Capitol Hill, he tunes out the buzz of partisan chatter on talk radio. At home, cable news is a no-no. And because friends sometimes try to talk to him about politics, he has become a master in the art of the dodge.
But the noise may soon be impossible to ignore. Senate Republicans are racing to finish health care legislation this week so that the C.B.O. can offer its assessment ahead of a vote that they would like to happen before the July Fourth recess.
Such is life for the bookish economist who leads the most powerful government office that most Americans have never heard of. Congress intended the C.B.O. to serve a nonpartisan provider of cost estimates and economic forecasts for nearly every piece of legislation that Congress considers. That makes the agency a lightning rod of criticism for both Republicans and Democrats when it says bills are going to be more costly to taxpayers than politicians had indicated. These days Mr. Hall and the credibility of his office have been under especially intense scrutiny because of the C.B.O.’s damning assessments of the health care bill that Republicans have been struggling to pass this summer.
Staying out of the political fray while working in its epicenter can be daunting, and Mr. Hall inevitably gets thrust into a spotlight that he does not crave.
“We’re a nonpartisan place and we’re working in a partisan world and we get treated as if we’re partisan,” Mr. Hall, 60, said in an interview at his fourth-floor office, which sits in the shadow of the Capitol. “That’s unfortunate.”
Most recently, the partisan pressure has been coming directly from top Trump administration officials.
Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, said last month that the C.B.O.’s time had “come and gone” and accused its employees of holding a liberal political bias. He even suggested making changes to the Congressional Budget Act, which created the office, to make the C.B.O. less influential in the legislative process.
“You can have a government without a Congressional Budget Office,” Mr. Mulvaney told The Washington Examiner in May.
The C.B.O. is often a target of criticism, but the fury of the attacks on Mr. Hall and his staff has struck veterans of the agency as a consequence of the toxic tone that has become pervasive in Washington in recent months.
“The directness of the attack by Mick Mulvaney is highly unusual,” said Doug Elmendorf, who was Mr. Hall’s predecessor as the director of the C.B.O. “The attack was unusual in not being just a disagreement with a particular estimate, which is totally legitimate, but an attack on the role of the organization.”
The agency was born out of a clash between Congress and President Richard M. Nixon, who was refusing to disburse appropriated funds that went against his preferred policies. In 1974, lawmakers overrode a presidential veto to reassert their power of the purse and passed the Congressional Budget Act. The law strengthened the budget authority of Congress and established the Congressional Budget Office as an agency to provide impartial economic estimates of legislation.
But the Trump administration thinks that the C.B.O. has amassed too much power, and Mr. Mulvaney is not the only one to target the office. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, has also laced into its work recently, pointing to its off-target estimates of the Affordable Care Act as evidence that it is ill equipped to pass judgment over the new Republican health plan.
The barrage of criticism is not without irony. It was Mr. Price, then a Republican congressman from Georgia, who called Mr. Hall in 2015 to inquire about his interest in the job. Mr. Hall was enjoying a comfortable post as chief economist at the International Trade Commission, where he enjoyed a low profile and an exotic travel itinerary while keeping an eye on retirement and the Washington Nationals.
As the party in control of Congress, Republicans were the ones to pick Mr. Hall for the job, and Mr. Price himself hailed the selection as a wise choice.
“Keith Hall will bring an impressive level of economic expertise and experience to the Congressional Budget Office,” Mr. Price said at the time. “His vast understanding of economic and labor market policy will be invaluable to the work of C.B.O. and the important role it will continue to play as Congress seeks to enact policies that support a healthy and growing economy.”
The selection was derided at the time by Democrats, who considered him a conservative economist whose views on poverty and the minimum wage were too far to the right.
Mr. Hall, who made a small donation to the Republican National Committee in 2004, made his name in Washington holding top positions in the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. He served as chief economist for the Council of Economic Advisers and at the Department of Commerce before Mr. Bush tapped him in 2008 to lead the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There he became known as the “recession commissioner” because he was charged with the grim task of announcing millions of job cuts as the economy cratered.
Friends and former colleagues of Mr. Hall describe him as “low key”: someone who is more an erudite academic than a political punching bag.
“He is a no-drama kind of person,” said Erica Groshen, who succeeded Mr. Hall as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “He is not the kind of guy who is going to try to circumvent the professional work of the agency or to try to skew it in one way or another.”
Although its critics often question its statistical models or economic assumptions, to those who have worked at the C.B.O. the notion that it could cook its books is hard to fathom. The office is closely advised by expert advisory panels, and it frequently seeks comment from policy specialists from all political persuasions.
Mr. Hall said that the most surprising thing to him about the coarse reactions to the C.B.O.’s reports is that lawmakers on congressional committees and their staff members work closely with the office while writing their legislation. Rather than Congress submitting a finished bill to the C.B.O. in a black box, there is a regular exchange of feedback throughout the process.
The C.B.O. will face another round of attacks when it produces an analysis of the health plan being written by Senate Republicans under a shroud of secrecy.
On Wednesday, Mr. Hall will also have to answer for the office’s work when he testifies before Congress on his own office’s budget.
Mr. Hall will undoubtedly get questions about the C.B.O.’s objectivity and calls for its role to be diminished. He finds himself focusing more on protecting his staff of economists and statisticians who work late into the night and over weekends crunching numbers for Congress.
“Part of my job is somewhat to shield them,” Mr. Hall said. “You can see the criticism, you can hear about it, and one of the things that’s been important I think is to tell them that people can have their opinion on things, but it doesn’t change what we do and how we do it.”
He rarely pushes back against his critics in public. Like referees or umpires, he said, there is nothing to be gained from becoming part of the debate.
But Mr. Hall does believe strongly that the C.B.O. should not be weakened or phased out. The work, he said, is especially important at a time when facts and data have increasingly come under assault by politics.
“It’s this idea of where the truth is,” Mr. Hall said. “I hate the term speaking truth to power, but it’s sort of why we’re here.”