Leading CBO

Posted by
Phill Swagel
June 11, 2019

CBO Director Phillip L. Swagel at the Peterson Foundation’s 2019 Fiscal Summit in Washington, D.C. Today, I delivered the following remarks at the Peterson Foundation’s 2019 Fiscal Summit here in Washington, D.C.

Good afternoon. I’m delighted to speak with you today after a bit more than a week in my new role as the Director of the Congressional Budget Office. I’m excited to have the opportunity to lead this extraordinary institution, which does such important work in support of the Congress as it grapples with the budgetary and economic issues facing the nation.

That excitement is tempered, though, because my appointment was announced just one day after the passing of CBO’s founding Director, Alice Rivlin, who led CBO from 1975 to 1983. With vision, wisdom, and determination, she established the agency’s structure and formulated procedures, standards, and goals that have guided it for more than four decades. Above all, she forged a commitment to providing information that would help the Congress make effective budget and economic policy. In a memo to the staff in 1976, at the start of CBO’s first full year of operation, she wrote: “CBO must be, and must be perceived to be, an objective, non-partisan, professional organization in the service of the Congress. . . . Our work and our publications must always be balanced, thorough and free of any partisan tinge.”

We still give that memo to every new employee at CBO.

My University of Maryland colleague Phil Joyce has written that several decisions Alice made in CBO’s first year became crucial to its ability to perform its functions as she had envisioned them. She selected staff who could perform in a nonpartisan manner. She organized the agency so that it would undertake longer-term policy analysis work in addition to short-term budget work. Most importantly, according to Phil, she decided that CBO would not make policy recommendations—to avoid aligning the agency with one side or the other and thus being viewed as partisan.

My goal is to live up to the standards that Alice set for the office, working with CBO’s superb staff to provide objective analyses in support of the Congress and on behalf of the American people.

We maintain that objectivity in a number of ways:

  • We continue to make no policy recommendations because choices about public policy inevitably involve value judgments that the agency does not and should not make;
  • We continue to hire people on the basis of their expertise and without regard to political affiliation;
  • We continue to enforce strict rules that prevent employees from having financial conflicts of interest and that limit their political activities;
  • We continue to carefully consider whether potential employees can perform objective analysis, regardless of their own personal views; and
  • We continue to draw on the knowledge and insight of experts, both inside and outside the government, representing a variety of perspectives on the subjects at hand.

Within the agency, CBO encourages open discussion of analytical issues under consideration. Our analysts carefully read relevant research and examine data collected by government agencies and private organizations. All of CBO’s products undergo rigorous review by people at different levels of the organization. Furthermore, our reports are reviewed by outside experts who specialize in the issues at hand. The outside experts who consult with CBO represent a variety of perspectives and include professors, think-tank analysts, industry group representatives, other private-sector experts, and federal, state, and local government employees. Although CBO draws on many outside experts, our findings are based on our own assessments, and we are solely responsible for them. If you have concerns about any of CBO’s analyses, please let me know.

Sometimes CBO’s findings make people on one side or another of an issue unhappy—sometimes both sides. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know the day will come. In fact, from time to time, the Washington Post has described CBO’s job as being “the skunk at the Congressional picnic.” Following long-standing tradition, my office is now adorned with a stuffed skunk, presented to me by the wonderful CBO staff on my first day on the job. Many previous CBO directors had such a furry critter and, from time to time, had to fulfill the role described by the Post. We will continue to call issues as we see them, based on careful analysis, regardless of the political ramifications.

But that careful, objective work does not serve its full purpose unless people understand what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, which data and analytical tools we’ve used, and what key factors drive our estimates. So transparency about our estimates and analyses has been, and will continue to be, a top priority for CBO. The agency has made great strides in recent years under the leadership of my distinguished predecessors—particularly in the past four years under Keith Hall.

CBO has three goals related to transparency:

  • One is to promote a thorough understanding of our analyses through accessible, clear, and detailed communication;
  • A second is to help people gauge how our estimates might change if policies or circumstances differed; and
  • A third is to enhance the credibility of our analyses and processes by showing their connections to data, professional research, and feedback from experts. That credibility is important on a day-to-day basis, and it’s especially critical when important policy decisions are being made on the basis of our work.

We undertake a variety of activities to accomplish those goals. I’ll mention just some of them:

  • We testify about our projections and analytical methods and respond to questions from Members of Congress;
  • We publish reports and other documents explaining our analyses to both general and technical audiences;
  • Most cost estimates include a section describing the basis for that estimate, and we have updated the format of our cost estimates to highlight key parameters;
  • We make segments of computer code available for some of our models, such as our new health insurance simulation model;
  • We provide files of data underlying the analyses in our major reports and other studies, readily accessible on our website;
  • If actual outcomes are identifiable, we analyze the accuracy of our estimates and publish reports on the results;
  • We regularly compare our estimates and projections with those of other organizations when available;
  • We try to describe the nature and magnitude of the uncertainty surrounding our estimates and projections; and
  • CBO staff members communicate every day with people outside the agency—most importantly, on Capitol Hill—to explain our findings and methods and to get feedback to enhance the quality of our work.

Are our estimates and analyses always right? Of course not. As some wise people have said, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But we work hard to ensure that our analyses are timely, thorough, and nonpartisan; that they incorporate the best possible information; that they generally reflect the middle of a range of the most likely outcomes; and that they, and the basis for them, are clearly presented and explained. We also work hard to provide additional information when that is useful.

All of our official reports and estimates are publicly available on our website once they’re completed. And we are now providing the Congress and the public more information about what we’re working on, through quarterly snapshots of our work in progress on analytic reports and cost estimates. The first update was posted on our website last Wednesday.

It’s important to be aware that some significant work that we do is not, and cannot be, publicly known while it’s under way. CBO routinely works with Congressional committees and leaders to provide information and analysis when they are evaluating alternative proposals but have not yet made specific proposals public. In such situations, confidentiality is critical to the legislative process; committees need the flexibility to modify their proposals before making them public. The existence of such work in progress, which is provided equitably to the majority and minority in both chambers, is therefore kept confidential. Once a proposal becomes public, CBO makes its estimates for that version of the legislation publicly available.

As we continue to undertake efforts to bolster transparency, I am thinking carefully about which potential steps are valuable and informative and which may have less value. We must constantly balance our transparency efforts with our commitment to respond quickly to Congressional needs and with our professional responsibility to release reports and estimates only when they reach sufficient quality. We welcome your feedback about what you find most helpful, as well as your suggestions for other ways we can provide useful information about our work.

I have long been an admirer of CBO’s work. While working in academia for the past 10 years and, before that, in several government positions, I relied on CBO’s high-quality analyses on many subjects. The agency provides authoritative analysis, including responsive and informative estimates of the costs of proposed legislation, because of the dedicated work and the deep expertise of its analytical staff. That work is made possible, in turn, by a talented group of colleagues who develop and maintain the agency’s information technology systems and carry out essential functions in human resources, accounting, and more. I’ve been at CBO for only a week but already have a deep appreciation for the excellence and dedication of the people at the agency.

I consider it a great privilege to be able to work to perpetuate Alice Rivlin’s legacy by joining such a terrific group of people in providing the Congress with objective and impartial analyses. I look forward to learning much from them and from you in the coming years.

Phillip L. Swagel is CBO’s Director.