CBO’s Ongoing Transparency Efforts

Posted by
Keith Hall
May 29, 2019

Transparency is a top priority for the Congressional Budget Office. It is so important, in fact, that I would like to devote one more blog post to the topic in my last week as CBO’s Director.

Last month, I highlighted the extensive technical information that we have published about our work related to health insurance coverage. And CBO has continued its broader transparency efforts in 2019, resulting in the release of testimony, reports, spreadsheets, presentations, interactive graphics, and other products—all of which are listed on a single page on our website. Such efforts build on those that we reported at the end of last year. And other transparency activities are currently in progress.

CBO has three goals related to transparency:

  • To promote a thorough understanding of the agency’s analyses through accessible, clear, and detailed communication;
  • To help people gauge how the agency’s estimates might change if policies or circumstances differed; and
  • To enhance the credibility of the agency’s analyses and processes by showing their connections to data, professional research, and feedback from experts.

CBO’s transparency efforts can be categorized into 10 types of activities.

Testifying and Publishing Answers to Questions. In the first five months of 2019, CBO testified at six Congressional hearings. In addition to presenting oral remarks, answering questions at the hearings, and presenting written statements, the agency published answers to many subsequent questions by Members.

CBO expects to continue to testify about topics as requested by the Congress. CBO will also continue to work to resolve issues raised as part of the oversight provided by the budget committees and the Congress generally. In addition, the agency expects that Members of Congress will ask other questions to which it will provide published responses.

Explaining Its Analytical Methods. In the first five months of 2019, CBO published 13 reports or other documents explaining its analyses to both general and technical audiences. CBO also has made available segments of computer code for its new health insurance simulation model to provide more detail about how the model works. In addition, the agency’s report about reverse mortgages is accompanied by a workbook that includes code underlying its estimates.

CBO has updated the format of its cost estimates to highlight key parameters as well as information needed by the Congress for budget enforcement procedures. The agency has also published cost estimates’ tables in spreadsheet format on its website to facilitate use of the information. Also, in nearly every cost estimate, CBO has included a description of the basis of the estimate. (For example, see the cost estimate for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019.)

CBO plans to publish a number of reports explaining its analytical methods in the coming months. One report will provide a nontechnical explanation of how the agency treats uncertainty in cost estimates. In addition, CBO plans to publish short reports providing general information to help Members of Congress, their staff, and others better understand the agency’s work. One report will provide brief explanations of some important concepts related to the Congressional budget process—for example, the difference between rescissions and reappropriations. Another will explain key scorekeeping rules and how CBO has used them to provide cost estimates for recent legislation.

CBO also will provide technical information about several other methods that it uses to analyze the effects of federal policies. Specifically, CBO plans to publish descriptions of the data and analytical methods underlying the microsimulation model that it uses to analyze potential changes to the cost-sharing structure of Medicare’s fee-for-service program and to medigap coverage. The agency also plans to describe how it estimates the effects of employers’ matching and default contribution rates on federal employees’ own contribution rates to the Thrift Savings Plan and on the government’s costs.

And CBO plans to release some code from other models: one used to project long-term budget outcomes, another used to forecast business investment, and a third used to roughly approximate the budgetary effects of broad changes in the economy.

Releasing Data. In the past five months, CBO has published many files providing details about its economic forecast and its budget projections. In addition, CBO has released data about more than a thousand expired or expiring authorizations of appropriations.

CBO will continue to publish spreadsheets in conjunction with its major recurring reports, including detailed information on 10-year budget projections, historical budget outcomes, 10-year projections for trust funds, revenue projections by category, spending projections by budget account, tax parameters and effective marginal tax rates on labor and capital, and 10-year projections of economic variables, as well as data about the economy’s maximum sustainable output. The agency will also provide details about baseline projections for selected programs, as well as more supporting spreadsheets.

Other data will provide details about CBO’s long-term budget projections, the projections underlying the agency’s estimates of the Social Security program’s finances, and the agency’s estimates of the cost of dozens of federal credit programs. Throughout the year, the agency will post the data underlying the graphics in various reports. Also in 2019, CBO will post an interactive product to help users obtain information about the agency’s estimates of the distribution of household income.

Analyzing the Accuracy of Its Estimates. So far in 2019, CBO has released a report that compares its projections of federal subsidies for health insurance coverage with actual outcomes. Later this year, the agency will release a report analyzing the accuracy of its past projections of deficits and debt. As part of a continuing series of reports about the accuracy of its previous cost estimates, CBO will publish a reexamination of its original estimate of the cost of the legislation establishing the Department of Defense Medicare-Eligible Retiree Health Care Fund. The agency will continue publishing annual reports reviewing the accuracy of its outlay and revenue projections for the previous year. The biennial report on the accuracy of CBO’s economic forecasts will be released this year as well.

Comparing Its Current Estimates With Its Previous Ones. In four publications published so far this year, CBO has explained the differences between the projections that it made in 2019 and the projections that it made last year. In the future, in recurring reports—such as those about the budget and economic outlook and the long-term budget outlook—CBO will continue to explain the differences between the current year’s projections and the previous year’s. In its cost estimates, CBO will continue to identify related legislative provisions for which it has provided estimates in the recent past and explain the extent to which the provisions and estimates at hand are similar or different.

Comparing Its Estimates With Those of Other Organizations. In three major reports, CBO made comparisons with the Administration’s budget projections, with the economic projections of private forecasters and other government agencies, and with the policy analyses of various organizations. Also, CBO’s staff gave a presentation on lessons learned from a symposium on life-cycle macroeconomic modeling. The symposium used CBO’s model and related models from six other organizations to analyze the long-term effects of certain hypothetical changes to Social Security.

CBO will continue to publish regular comparisons of its economic projections with those of other forecasters and to include other comparisons in its reports. In addition, when time does not allow for publication, analysts will aim to discuss such comparisons with Congressional staff.

Estimating the Effects of Policy Alternatives. CBO has released an interactive tool that allows the user to explore seven policy options that could be used to improve the Social Security program’s finances and delay the trust funds’ exhaustion. The agency has also published four reports that include estimates of the effects that alternative assumptions about future policies would have on budgetary outcomes. Later this year, The 2019 Long-Term Budget Outlook, other reports describing CBO’s budgetary projections, and reports on other topics will also illustrate the potential effects of various policy proposals.

Describing How Much Uncertainty Surrounds Its Estimates. The agency has carefully discussed the uncertainty surrounding its estimates in several reports, including The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2019 to 2029 and Federal Subsidies for Health Insurance Coverage for People Under Age 65: 2019 to 2029. When it is practicable to do so, CBO’s new format for cost estimates includes a discussion of specific areas of uncertainty. Also, The 2019 Long-Term Budget Outlook will describe new methods that CBO has developed to characterize uncertainty.

Creating Data Visualizations. To make CBO’s projections easier to understand, the agency has published five chart books and slide decks about the budget and the economy. CBO has also created visual summaries for two major reports. And CBO will soon publish infographics (including an interactive version) providing a detailed look at the budget last year as well as broader trends over the past few decades.

Conducting Outreach. As usual, the most important form of CBO’s outreach has been direct communication between the agency and the Congress in person, by phone, and by email. The agency’s leaders met with Members of Congress to answer their questions. In addition, CBO’s staff made 16 presentations about the agency’s processes and recently completed work. Also, CBO updated An Introduction to the Congressional Budget Office, produced a video that introduces newcomers to the agency, and solicited feedback about its work through a survey of Congressional staff.

As the agency updated its health insurance model, it continually discussed that development with representatives from the Congress, federal agencies, states, insurers, employers, doctors, hospitals, and the general public. The agency also obtained feedback from researchers, including those on the technical review panel that it established to assist with that model.

More broadly, CBO solicited input about much of its work from a range of policy experts, including those on its Panel of Economic Advisers and Panel of Health Advisers. Many reports benefited from outside experts’ written comments on preliminary versions, and that feedback is acknowledged in those reports. In addition, for some recurring reports produced on compressed timetables, such as The 2019 Long-Term Budget Outlook, the agency solicited comments on previously published versions and selected technical issues so that it could incorporate improvements in the current edition or build the capacity to do so in the future.

CBO will continue to communicate every day with people outside the agency to explain its findings and methods, respond to questions, and obtain feedback. The agency’s leaders will meet regularly with Members of Congress to do the same. CBO will also continue to keep the Congress abreast of its ongoing work, providing information to any interested Member about the status of work in progress that is not confidential and making a public announcement the week before certain major reports are released.

In the future, CBO will continue to obtain input from its Panel of Economic Advisers, its Panel of Health Advisers, and other experts. For example, CBO will convene a recurring meeting of crop insurance and commodity analysts to review the past performance of the crop insurance program and commodity markets and to discuss projections of future spending in those areas. CBO’s staff will give presentations on Capitol Hill on its budget and economic projections and on other topics. The agency will also give presentations about its findings and about work in progress to offer explanations and gather feedback in a variety of venues. In addition, CBO will use narrated presentations and blog posts to summarize and highlight various issues.

Keith Hall is CBO’s Director.