Don't shoot the calculator

Throughout the health care debate, the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the legislation proposed by Congressional Democrats would extend insurance coverage to 30 million people without increasing the federal budget deficit. Their most recent estimate -- for the bill that President Obama signed and the package of fixes that has now passed both the Senate and House -- stated that the proposals as written would “produce a net reduction in federal deficits of $143 billion over the 2010-2019 period,” and would “reduce federal budget deficits over the ensuing decade relative to those projected under current law” by around “one-half percent of GDP.”

Needless to say, this was unacceptable to Fox News, which openly opposed Democrats' reform efforts from the start. So when they weren't cluelessly rejecting the basic proposition that legislation could both spend $940 billion and reduce the deficit, they were portraying the CBO estimates as unreliable, suggesting that CBO was influenced by pressure from the White House, or ignoring CBO entirely.

Fox's latest claim: CBO is incompetent.

This morning on Fox & Friends, Stuart Varney declared that CBO “made a huge mistake” on its estimate of Obama's 2011 budget since CBO “said at first, well, this is going to add about $8.5 trillion to the deficit,” but now says “Oops. Got it wrong. Not $8.5 trillion, almost $10 trillion to the deficit.” Varney added:

VARNEY: So they made a huge mistake right from the get-go. Now, if they can make that kind of mistake with the budget, what kind of mistake did they make with the health care cost projections, which were used by President Obama right before the vote to sell it.

The problem with Varney's attack: CBO didn't "[say] at first, well, this is going to add about $8.5 trillion to the deficit." That's what the Obama administration estimated in February when they released the 2011 budget proposal. Both CBO's March 5 preliminary analysis and its March 24 full analysis state that under Obama's budget, the debt will increase by around $9.8 trillion over the next 10 years.

Now, if Varney can make that kind of mistake, what kind of mistakes has he made with everything else he's said about health care reform? Just asking.

Varney's wasn't Fox & Friends' only attack on CBO today. Earlier in the show, they hosted Amity Shlaes -- famous for her attempts to revise the history of the New Deal -- to explain how CBO could have possibly concluded that health care reform reduces the deficit. Her answer: "[T]he CBO is like a codependent in an alcoholic household" because “they are set up to tell Congress what Congress wants to hear,” so "[i]t's all a big lie." There's more:

DOOCY: You say that they're lying to us about the ultimate cost because the CBO is provided all the information by the party in charge of that legislation.

SHLAES: That's right. It's like when someone's hanging off a cliff and you say, 'Dear CBO, is he gonna end up in the hospital?' And they say, 'No sir,' but they forget to tell you he'll end up in the morgue. They set the question up that way like a bad pollster. It's not their fault. It's the way they're structured.

At no point during her appearance did Shlaes attempt to identify a single “lie” purportedly perpetrated by CBO or a specific complaint about their methodology. Her argument is simply that lying is what CBO does. During the segment, Fox & Friends aired on-screen text stating, “CBO's magic math: How they turn spending into savings,” “Health care cost lies have the country singing the blues,” and “Selling the fantasy budget: CBO uses formulas provided by lawmakers.”

By “formulas,” Fox & Friends must mean “legislation.” CBO is tasked with estimating the cost of Congress' bills as they are written, based on its current law scenario and economic projections - which, as the recent budget numbers show, differ from the assumptions of the Obama administration. CBO doesn't manipulate its numbers to please Congress. Congress writes its bills to please CBO, so to speak. As the New York Times recently reported, the Democrats long ago set target goals for the 10-year cost of their bill and "[w]henever the budget office [CBO] judged that some element or elements of the bill would cause a problem meeting the cost and deficit-reduction targets, Democrats just adjusted the underlying legislation to make sure it would hit their goal."

CBO itself frequently notes that its estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty, but by all reputable accounts, their work is the best we have for cautious, independent analyses of the budgetary cost or benefit of public policies. In a March 19 blog post, CBO director Douglas Elmendorf stated that CBO seeks to produce estimates that “reflect the middle of the distribution of possible outcomes” and "[a]s a result, we believe that CBO's estimates of the net savings that would result from the legislation have a roughly equal chance of turning out to be too high or too low." Indeed, CBO has been criticized for underestimating savings from health care policies. And it's not clear who CBO was enabling when it told Congress last year that Obama's proposed Independent Medicare Advisory Council would likely produce only “modest savings” or when it said that “the budget deficit and debt are on a trajectory that poses significant economic risks and ultimately becomes unsustainable.”

You can argue that Congress is going to change the health care law in the future or that the law doesn't include everything that should be included, as many conservatives have in recent weeks, but to claim that CBO is “lying to us” because it analyzed the bill (now the law) according to its language and not speculation about possible actions Congress might take in the future is truly outrageous, particularly considering that every CBO analysis takes pains to lay bare its assumptions and limitations.

Seeing as though the health care reform bill is now U.S. law, it's hard to comprehend Fox News' continued attempts to dismantle the well-earned credibility of CBO. But next time Fox & Friends cites CBO because one of its estimates confirm rather than contradict Fox News' partisan predispositions, we'll be here with video documenting Fox's belief that CBO is structurally incapable of telling the truth.