Reflections on a Year at CBO

Posted by
Phill Swagel
June 3, 2020

Today marks my one-year anniversary as the Director of the Congressional Budget Office. It is a particularly proud moment for me, and I would like to reflect on CBO’s accomplishments over the past 12 months and its ongoing commitment to supporting the Congress.

I shared these reflections and discussed CBO’s most recent interim economic projections at a meeting today with the Brookings Institution’s International Advisory Council and with some of its Trustees.

Working with and learning from CBO’s extraordinary staff has been a privilege. In recent months, CBO has been focused on supporting the Congress as it responds to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. CBO’s staff have worked from home to produce estimates of the effects of legislation that has become law, as well as of legislation that is still being considered by the Congress. Staff members also provided technical assistance to the Congress as it considered those legislative proposals—assistance that included providing preliminary estimates of the effects of specific provisions and answering questions about various other effects. CBO continues to provide such assistance as the Congress considers further actions.

In addition, CBO’s staff have provided lawmakers with economic and budget projections as they consider proposals to address the pandemic’s effects on the economy and the country. Most recently, in mid-May, the agency produced interim economic projections for 2020 and 2021, and in late April, CBO released preliminary projections of key economic variables and federal deficits through 2021.

CBO has also sought to make its projections as accessible as possible. For example, the agency developed interactive graphics to accompany the interim economic projections and the latest Monthly Budget Review. I had the opportunity to speak to the House Budget Committee in late April about the preliminary projections. CBO developed narrated presentations highlighting the main points of that talk and the key conclusions to be drawn from the interim economic projections. CBO also developed a new web page to make it easier for lawmakers, their staff, and the public to find work related to the pandemic.

At the same time, CBO is continuing to produce analyses for the Congress in other areas. For me, one of the many pleasures of being at CBO is the opportunity to learn so much about a wide array of interesting and important topics. In just the past few months, the agency has issued reports about highway programs, federal debt, the North American electric grid, student loans, ground-launched missiles, characteristics of the foreign-born population, how dependents affect people’s federal income taxes, the possible establishment of a Space National Guard, and other topics—along with numerous cost estimates for a wide variety of reported bills. Work is under way on other analytic products, which were detailed in CBO’s latest quarterly report about its work in progress.

When I took over as CBO’s Director a year ago, I never could have imagined that the agency would be in its current position. A staff of about 260 people is succeeding in carrying out CBO’s mission—to provide independent, nonpartisan, and objective analyses to the Congress—on an almost fully remote basis. That success has not come without challenges. While remaining committed to producing the best possible work for the Congress, many of CBO’s employees are taking care of their children and other family members; I have been impressed and humbled by their stamina and fortitude. Each week, in virtual town hall gatherings, I have emphasized to staff members that taking care of themselves and their families must be their top priority.

I greatly appreciate the contributions of CBO’s information technology staff, who worked to enable the agency to make the transition, seemingly overnight, to working remotely full time. I am grateful as well to CBO’s human resources staff, who have provided expert support to help current employees during this difficult time while also helping managers hire new staff members remotely. Still, I miss being able to walk down CBO’s hallways to greet people, to thank them for their work, or to get more information about pending issues.

Last month saw another one-year anniversary—the anniversary of the passing of CBO’s founding Director, Alice Rivlin. In all of her wisdom, she probably never could have imagined the conditions under which the agency is currently working, but I also expect that she would have been just as proud as I am of what it has accomplished during such a challenging time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as CBO’s Director and to continue to support the Congress during this time of crisis. Like the Directors who came before me, I consider it a privilege to carry on what Alice started in 1975; indeed, my goal is to live up to the standards that she set for the agency. Every day, I am excited to work with CBO’s skilled and dedicated staff to provide nonpartisan analyses in support of the Congress and on behalf of the American people.

Phillip L. Swagel is CBO’s Director.