DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:
The Congressional Budget Office, or just the CBO, is almost like a budget referee for the government. When Congress is thinking about passing a new bill, the CBO's job is to estimate how that bill will affect the government's budget.
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
But just like referees in basketball or other sports, the CBO takes a lot of verbal abuse from people that disagree with it. And members of the Trump administration have disagreed with it a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
SEAN SPICER: If you're looking to the CBO for accuracy, you're looking in the wrong place.
MICK MULVANEY: I love the folks at the CBO. They work really hard. They do. But sometimes we ask them to do stuff they're not capable of doing.
LARRY KUDLOW: Never believe the CBO - very important. Never believe them. They're always wrong, especially with regard to tax cuts.
GARCIA: The 235 people who work at the CBO are mainly career technocrats who are just there to analyze bills for the Congress. But the conclusions they reach matter a lot. Whether a bill passes sometimes does hinge on how the CBO estimates its effects. So it's not unusual for presidential administrations to complain about it when they disagree with it.
KURTZLEBEN: But despite all of those battles over the years, the CBO is still here doing the work it was designed to do. But there are some ways in which the attacks from the Trump White House have been way different from those of the past. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben.
GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on THE INDICATOR, we talk to the first ever director of the CBO. And she tells us how she designed the CBO in the early days to protect it from partisan attacks and how tribal politics present a new threat to its work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GARCIA: Alice Rivlin is an economist at the Brookings Institution. And she has seen and seemingly done it all. She's worked in the presidential administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. She's written books. She's done decades of research on how government works. And...
ALICE RIVLIN: And I was the first director of the Congressional Budget Office.
KURTZLEBEN: Alice's journey to becoming the first director of the CBO was bumpy and also, to put it mildly, colorful. The Constitution gives Congress power over the budget, and the CBO was established in 1974 to provide Congress with analysis over how its decisions would affect the budget. But first, the budget committee in the Senate and the budget committee in the House had to agree on who would lead it. But they didn't agree. The Senate wanted Alice but not the House.
RIVLIN: The head of the House Budget Committee who was committed to the other candidate was actually rather sexist. And he'd been said - heard to say that over his dead body would a woman have this job. And that was part of the gridlock problem. So...
GARCIA: Oh, my God. Who was that? Do you remember his name?
RIVLIN: Yes. His name was Al Ullman, now deceased, a very competent congressman from Oregon.
KURTZLEBEN: So polite.
GARCIA: I like how she goes straight from super sexist dude, competent congressman from Oregon.
KURTZLEBEN: It's the kind of measured analysis I expect from a former CBO director.
GARCIA: Exactly. Actually, the thing that broke this gridlock was actually a bizarre event that happened on a different House committee.
RIVLIN: The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was a very able congressman from Arkansas named Wilbur Mills. And Wilbur Mills had a drinking problem. And one night, he was in his car with an exotic dancer named Fanne Foxe. And Fanne for whatever reason leaped out of his car and into the tidal basin.
KURTZLEBEN: So what happened was that the police had pulled over Wilbur Mills because he didn't have his lights on. But Mills was drunk, and Fanne Foxe was in the car with him - that is, until she was in the tidal basin.
RIVLIN: She was rescued. The tidal basin isn't very deep. But that was the end of Wilbur Mills' career.
GARCIA: It was a huge scandal. But the upshot is that Mills resigned as Ways and Means chair. And Al Ullman, who had been blocking Alice again, left the budget committee to take his place. The guy who replaced Ullman as chair of the budget committee cleared the way for Alice to become the first director of the CBO.
RIVLIN: And that's how I got my job. I owed my job to Fanne Foxe.
KURTZLEBEN: And so after that awkward beginning, Alice formally took over the job in February of 1975.
GARCIA: There's a kind of famous memo that you sent to the executive staff of the CBO after you had become the director. And one of the things it says in that memo is that the analysis and publications of the CBO have to be - and I'm quoting here - "balanced, thorough and free of any partisan tinge." Can you just kind of tell us, like, why that was so important to you?
RIVLIN: It was important, and I think it's still important. And I felt strongly that the job of the Congressional Budget Office was to be as accurate as possible and as neutral as possible.
KURTZLEBEN: And in that vein, Alice credits one decision she made in particular with having protected the CBO through the years. And that decision was that the CBO would not make recommendations or say if a bill was good or bad. Congress made the decisions, and the CBO would only do analysis - no value judgments at all.
GARCIA: The attacks still came anyways, especially from the Reagan White House in the 1980s when it disagreed with the CBO's analysis. That was of course a Republican White House, and Alice had worked for a Democrat president in the 1960s. But those attacks didn't really stick because even the Republicans in Congress had her back.
RIVLIN: The Republican Congress and particularly the chairman of the budget committee, the late Senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico, simply said to the White House, she works for us; she doesn't work for you.
KURTZLEBEN: And that pattern has mostly held since. The White House will often take issue with the CBO's estimates of a bill, and often the White House will publish its own alternative estimates. But that's usually as far as it goes. And Alice says that's fine. It's OK to disagree with the CBO's conclusions or with its methodology. She did that herself when she was a member of President Clinton's Cabinet.
GARCIA: Plus, sometimes the CBO does get something wrong. That's just to be expected, she says. Every estimate of the future relies on some assumptions about what's going to happen. So for example, if a tax cut passes, the CBO will give an estimate for how much less money the government will get in tax revenues. But if the economy grows faster or slower than expected, that estimate might end up being a little off. Alice also points to the example of Obamacare.
RIVLIN: Subsidizing insurance for uninsured people - that hadn't been done before on any national scale. So they didn't really know how many people would take advantage of this, how many people wanted to buy the insurance with the subsidy, and therefore, how much would it cost? And they actually didn't do a very good job about estimating that. They thought there would be more people who would take up the offer of the subsidized insurance, and so they overestimated the cost.
KURTZLEBEN: So these are normal and sometimes even helpful criticisms. But Alice does say that there have been at least a couple of ways that the complaints from the Trump White House have differed from the complaints from prior administrations. First, the attempts to delegitimize the institution itself as opposed to just disagreeing with its conclusions have been more aggressive than usual.
RIVLIN: I think it's gotten a little bit worse because the hostility between the two parties and the sort of tribal warfare between the parties that we're engaged in at the moment has intensified all of those potentials for hostility to the CBO.
KURTZLEBEN: And on top of that, the complaints about the CBO haven't just come from the president's supporters. They've come from the very top.
GARCIA: So you had the perspective of having seen similar types of rhetoric thrown at the CBO.
RIVLIN: Yes, but never from the president himself. That was a little startling.
GARCIA: Specifically, the president retweeted a criticism of the CBO from the official White House Twitter account. Plus, the office has been attacked most prominently by his chief economic adviser and his head of the Office of Management and Budget.
KURTZLEBEN: Still, Alice says that the really egregious stuff like when Mick Mulvaney, who runs the Office of Management and Budget, said the CBO's day has come and gone, that stuff has mostly died down. And Alice says part of the reason is that there's no real substitute for the CBO.
RIVLIN: It's really important for the Congress to have an organization of competent analysts who are trying as hard as they can to get the numbers right and to produce unbiased analysis. They don't always get it right, but A, they're right a lot of the time, and B, you don't have an alternative. If you say, well, we'll make up a number of our own or we'll ask some academic or some think tank, those people are not necessarily very well-equipped to do the analysis. And they may have a strong bias of their own.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.