What is it?
Ever hear about a bill and think “that’s obviously a great idea…what’s stopping Congress from passing it?” Then you read a little more and realize that great idea is really, really expensive?
You can thank the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for keeping us down to earth as we figure out how to solve big, complicated, often expensive problems.
The CBO’s job is to help Congress make wise budget and economic decisions. It has a team of economists and budget analysts who crunch numbers and write reports – lots of reports. In fact, federal law requires the CBO to create a cost estimate for just about every bill that passes out of a House or Senate committee. The agency also runs the numbers on other issues that Congress is interested in, and pops out an annual report called the Budget and Economic Outlook.
If questions like this keep you awake at night, the CBO has the answers you’re looking for:
- How much is the president’s proposed budget going to cost?
- How much will that new transportation bill cost, and will it enable enough new business to pay for itself?
- How much will the federal government spend on health care next year, and how many people are likely going to have health insurance over the next decade?
- How much is the federal government going to spend on satellites, Social Security, or nuclear weapons?
- When will the federal government hit the debt limit and be unable to pay our nation’s bills?
The CBO is nonpartisan and takes its role as an impartial analyst seriously. It doesn’t recommend that Congress or the president take a particular position on a policy – it just does the math and reports the facts. The CBO is also very open about how it makes calculations and always publishes the methods it used to arrive at a number.
The Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate (a fancy job title that traditionally goes to a senior senator from whichever party is in power) jointly appoint the director of the CBO. The House and the Senate are responsible for overseeing the CBO director for a four-year term.
By federal government standards, the CBO is quite small, with about 275 employees.
Why it matters to you
The CBO is staunchly nonpartisan, which means its staff is supposed to make responsible budget estimates based on data, not on which political party they like best. The result? When the CBO talks, people listen. Congress and the president often point to the CBO’s reports when they want to build support or opposition to a bill. Here are just a few examples of issues where the CBO’s voice can make a difference.
Should the government provide health insurance to everyone? If so, how? And how does that stack up against other options when it comes to cost? The CBO is a handy place to look if you want to know how much taxpayers currently spend on something and how the price tag might change if we had different policies. For example, if we want to lower the price of health care, would we do better to ask hospitals to be more transparent about their prices or regulate how much insurance companies can pay doctors? Of course, we consider all kinds of things when we change laws and regulations, but cost is a big piece of the puzzle.
Can the federal government afford to cancel student debt? That’s a complex question but the CBO can answer part of it: how much it would cost. When the federal government spends money on education and job training, do Americans ultimately earn higher salaries? The CBO can answer that (whether you think those subsidies are a terrific idea or a total boondoggle is up to you, though).
Energy & the Environment
If Congress wants to make smart decisions about America’s energy future, it’ll need to know things like how much carbon dioxide cars and trucks produce, how much cleaner a switch to electric would be, and how much it would cost American businesses to get there. Our legislators don’t want to get that intel from just anywhere – they want it from a reliable, nonpartisan source like the CBO.
If you think you’ll want help from Social Security to pay your bills one day, you probably also want to know whether the program will be there when you need it. Luckily, there’s a nice group of people over at the CBO who keep track of how much funding is available to folks who need Social Security and how things look for the future. You can also count on the CBO for some real talk, including how much money a person in the U.S. needs to cover their basic needs.
How to Make an Impact
The CBO has a reputation as a nonpartisan, apolitical, “Just the facts, ma’am” organization. You don’t really see people picketing outside the CBO offices. Still, everyone has a boss, and we’ll give you tips below on what you can do to make sure the CBO remains truly nonpartisan and harness its expertise to further your goals.
I’d Like to Speak to the Manager
The Speaker of the House and Senate President Pro Tempore appoint the director of the CBO – and they take recommendations from the House and Senate budget committees when making that decision. Plus, both the House and Senate oversee the CBO in the long term, which means they can hold hearings to get answers on the record. Got a question about how the CBO is doing its job or who should be in charge? Reach out to your member of Congress and ask them to put pressure on those decision-makers.
Get Under the Hood
The CBO is making a greater effort to be transparent about how it comes up with its cost estimates. If you want to know how CBO analysts arrived at certain numbers or why they made certain assumptions, a great way to get clarity is by asking your member of Congress. While the CBO may not return your phone call, federal agencies have staff members dedicated to answering questions and getting information for members of Congress. Ask them to pick up the phone to get help from our nation’s friendly budget analysts.
Reporting for Duty
The CBO is a report-publishing machine. If you want to advocate for an issue you care about, equipping yourself with data is always a smart move. That doesn’t mean you need to dedicate your beach reading time to CBO reports (though, hey, we won’t stop you). High-quality media sources cite the CBO’s well-regarded, nonpartisan budget estimates all the time and that’s a great place to find the talking points you need to make your case.
Even though the CBO is staunchly nonpartisan, partisan elected officials appoint the director (Speaker of the House and Senate President Pro Tempore, with recommendations from the House and Senate budget committees). Those people only have jobs because voters vote for them. Remember that when you fill out your ballot, you’ve got some control over who will run the CBO and have the important job of figuring out how much various policy decisions will cost or save.
On The Ground
When Congress and the president were wrangling over whether to raise the debt ceiling in 2023, they needed to answer one major question: when would the U.S. default on its debt? The CBO provided a critical piece of data when it said that the nation might have a few extra weeks than it earlier thought, giving lawmakers just enough time to reach a deal.
The CBO found that spending on Social Security and Medicare will nearly double by 2033, and raised alarms that Social Security could run out of money in 2032, two years earlier than budget analysts earlier thought.
When President Biden introduced a giant student loan debt forgiveness plan (which the Supreme Court has since struck down), The CBO estimated that it would cost the federal government $400 billion over the next decade. Opponents of the plan said it was an outrageously expensive burden on taxpayers, and unfair to people who had already sacrificed to pay back their loans. Supporters said it was an economic lifeline to borrowers that would add 1.5 million new jobs to the economy and increase consumer spending.
That debt ceiling showdown we were just talking about? Part of the agreement legislators ultimately reached included a new work requirement for older people who receive food stamps. The deal also added, however, new exemptions for veterans, homeless people, and young people leaving foster care. The CBO said that when you take all that into account, more people would probably be eligible for food stamps in the end.