When are CBO's cost estimates made public, and when are they not?

October 21, 2009

From time to time, you may hear in the news about a CBO cost estimate, log on to our Web site to check it out, and discover that its not there. That raises the question: When are CBOs cost estimates made public, and when are they not?

Answer: CBO does not provide confidential estimates for any proposals that have been made public. However, it honors requests for confidentiality if a proposal is not public, and maintains that confidentiality even if information about the estimate becomes public, as long as the proposal itself is not public.

Explanation: By law, CBO is responsible for providing cost estimates for bills (other than appropriation bills) when they are approved by a full committee of the House or Senate. Those estimates, which constitute the majority of CBOs formal estimates, are sent to both the Chairman and the Ranking Minority Member of the committee that approved it and are promptly posted on CBOs Web site.

CBO sometimes prepares cost estimates at other stages of the legislative process. For example, the agency is sometimes asked to estimate the budget impact of various alternatives during the developmental stages of the legislative process before lawmakers have decided exactly what legislation they want to propose. Thus, CBO may prepare preliminary estimates for alternative proposals to be considered by a committee, subcommittee, or the full House or Senate, including draft bills not yet introduced, or for amendments to be considered at committee markups. Estimates provided at these stages in the legislative process are often informal and convey preliminary indications of budgetary effects. They are generally used by Members or committees as they work through the decisionmaking process of formulating legislation.

CBOs long-standing policy regarding the distribution of estimates is stated on the agencys Web site: CBO seeks to ensure that key parties in the Congress who are involved in any particular issue have equal access to its analytic work. Insofar as possible, CBO delivers its cost estimates and analyses to all interested parties simultaneously. Requests for confidentiality are honored only for cost estimates for legislative proposals that have not been made public.

Under that policy, CBO shares with Members of both parties (and, for formal estimates, makes public via its Web site) any cost estimates for legislation or proposals that have been made public---for example, introduced bills, amendments printed in the Congressional Record, legislation (or specifications for legislation) posted on a committees Web site. But when a committee or Member is in the process of developing legislation and has not made the proposal public, and if that committee or Member asks CBO to keep the estimate confidential, the agency will do so. This procedure enables lawmakers to take budgetary considerations into account when considering various policy options in the process of crafting legislation.