Saturday, July 1, 2017

Keith Hall, C.B.O.

The three initials should give you a hint if you don’t recognize the name. He’s got one of the toughest jobs in Washington, where the political party in power has adopted climate change denial as official policy and where the release of any fact, no matter how thoroughly researched and substantiated by widely acknowledged experts, that contradicts their platform position is lambasted and labeled “false news.” And any utterance, no matter how questionable the source, that supports that platform is instantly accepted and widely disseminated, often cited with the credibility of the Gospel. Clearly, facts and the current political configuration on Capitol Hill are increasingly mutually exclusive.
Keith Hall has made mistakes; he’s most certainly not perfect. But the vectors of his statistical projections are usually correct and his rigorous methods are robust and statistically sound. Still wondering who he is? Add this: He forces himself to avoid watching political speeches and media’s political analyses. It’s a major effort. No, C.B.O. is not some form of British knighthood. It stands for Congressional Budget Office, that non-partisan body that produces projections and analyses measuring the impact of proposed federal legislation. Hall runs that office.
”[Economist] Keith Hall [PhD from Purdue University] is the Director of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. Hall had been the Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from January 2008 until January 2012. Hall previously worked at the Department of Commerce, Department of Treasury, the U.S. International Trade Commission, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers.” Wikipedia. Non-partisan, experienced and certainly qualified. But Mr. Hall is under attack by Republicans who do not like what he says about so many of their proposed bills, particularly on the ramifications of their proposed “repeal and replace” healthcare initiative.
“For Mr. Hall, avoiding political spectacles — anything politically partisan, really — has become second nature. On his commute to Capitol Hill, he tunes out the buzz of partisan chatter on talk radio. At home, cable news is a no-no. And because friends sometimes try to talk to him about politics, he has become a master in the art of the dodge.
“But the noise may soon be impossible to ignore. Senate Republicans are racing to finish health care legislation this week so that the C.B.O. can offer its assessment ahead of a vote that they would like to happen before the July Fourth recess.
“Such is life for the bookish economist who leads the most powerful government office that most Americans have never heard of. Congress intended the C.B.O. to serve as a nonpartisan provider of cost estimates and economic forecasts for nearly every piece of legislation that Congress considers. That makes the agency a lightning rod of criticism for both Republicans and Democrats when it says bills are going to be more costly to taxpayers than politicians had indicated. These days Mr. Hall and the credibility of his office have been under especially intense scrutiny because of the C.B.O.’s damning assessments of the health care bill that Republicans have been struggling to pass this summer…
“Staying out of the political fray while working in its epicenter can be daunting, and Mr. Hall inevitably gets thrust into a spotlight that he does not crave… ‘We’re a nonpartisan place and we’re working in a partisan world and we get treated as if we’re partisan,’ Mr. Hall, 60, said in an interview at his fourth-floor office, which sits in the shadow of the Capitol. ‘That’s unfortunate.’… Most recently, the partisan pressure has been coming directly from top Trump administration officials.
“Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director [and clearly a partisan political appointment], said last month that the C.B.O.’s time had ‘come and gone’ and accused its employees of holding a liberal political bias. He even suggested making changes to the Congressional Budget Act, which created the office, to make the C.B.O. less influential in the legislative process… ‘You can have a government without a Congressional Budget Office,’ Mr. Mulvaney told The Washington Examiner in May.
“The C.B.O. is often a target of criticism, but the fury of the attacks on Mr. Hall and his staff has struck veterans of the agency as a consequence of the toxic tone that has become pervasive in Washington in recent months.
“‘The directness of the attack by Mick Mulvaney is highly unusual,’ said Doug Elmendorf, who was Mr. Hall’s predecessor as the director of the C.B.O. ‘The attack was unusual in not being just a disagreement with a particular estimate, which is totally legitimate, but an attack on the role of the organization.’
“The agency was born out of a clash between Congress and President Richard M. Nixon, who was refusing to disburse appropriated funds that went against his preferred policies. In 1974, lawmakers overrode a presidential veto to reassert their power of the purse and passed the Congressional Budget Act. The law strengthened the budget authority of Congress and established the Congressional Budget Office as an agency to provide impartial economic estimates of legislation.
“But the Trump administration thinks that the C.B.O. has amassed too much power, and Mr. Mulvaney is not the only one to target the office. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, has also laced into its work recently, pointing to its off-target estimates of the Affordable Care Act as evidence that it is ill equipped to pass judgment over the new Republican health plan.
“The barrage of criticism is not without irony. It was Mr. Price, then a Republican congressman from Georgia, who called Mr. Hall in 2015 to inquire about his interest in the job. Mr. Hall was enjoying a comfortable post as chief economist at the International Trade Commission, where he enjoyed a low profile and an exotic travel itinerary while keeping an eye on retirement and the Washington Nationals.” New York Times, June 19th. Washington is repelling qualified candidates like Keith Hall, who must be wondering why he stays on. But as long as truth is the enemy, know well that democracy cannot survive.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as our educational standards plummet, as educated experts are held in deep disdain, as “feelings” trump facts, and as “truth” becomes nothing more than an unsubstantiated wish or opinion, the entire basis for our American form of government will crumble.

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