The 101st Senator?

In 1974 Congress created the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) "to provide the Congress with objective, timely, nonpartisan analyses needed for economic and budget decisions." Over the last quarter-century, members of the minority party (be they Republicans or Democrats) have sometimes raised concerns about how the CBO's numbers have been crunched. But, in general, the office has compiled an impressive record of impartiality in what is after all an inherently political institution. At least, that was the case until the Republican majority selected its fifth director of CBO, Dan Crippen. Since being appointed in February 1999, Crippen has taken it upon himself to inject his opinions into debates on every issue from Medicare to Social Security to the budget.

Crippen came to the CBO with impeccable conservative credentials. In the 1980s, he worked as chief counsel and economic policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and later moved with Baker to the Reagan White House. (Crippen became deputy assistant to the president when Baker took over as Reagan's last chief of staff.) During the 1990s, he worked for several Washington lobbying firms.

Congressional Democrats hoped that the sanctity of the CBO would keep Crippen on his best behavior, but it wasn't to be. Less than two weeks after he became director, on February 11, he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on a CBO study of Social Security in five foreign countries. He used his bully pulpit to argue for the privatization of Social Security in the United States. His written testimony concluded, "Efforts by national governments to pre-fund programs for retirement have not succeeded; pre-funding through privatization offers an opportunity to increase national saving and economic growth." (According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Crippen's conclusion did not logically follow from any of the findings actually contained in the five-country study.)

But that wouldn't be the last time Crippen's penchant for privatization got the best of him. On March 3, 1999, he wrote to Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm to explain that although he was not acquainted with the specifics of his Social Security proposal, "One result of your plan and others like it that return to individuals the right and responsibility to manage the surpluses is that the funds are saved and are invested. National saving should be increased and economic growth should be higher."

Crippen was even more encouraging to Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana and his proposal to put Medicare in direct competition with private health care companies. On February 18, Crippen wrote Breaux that "the details that remain to be specified would determine the ultimate effectiveness of the proposal in slowing the growth of Medicare's costs. But the general direction of the proposal is clearly promising." Democrats (an overwhelming majority of whom opposed the Breaux proposal) were less than thrilled that Crippen would spend four pages waxing ecstatic about the advantages of competition when he had no details or estimates. Crippen seemed to see his role less as a number cruncher than as a freelance conservative policy activist weighing in on which bills he liked and which ones he didn't. As one congressional staffer put it, "He's like the 101st senator."

Crippen received several sharply worded letters after the Breaux letter was circulated. And new criticisms were leveled through the spring and summer. It wasn't just that Crippen was acting like an ideologue; he was also making a lot of mistakes. His February 23, 1999, testimony before the Ways and Means committee was not just biased--some of the data was mislabeled and some of it was just plain wrong. In mid-July, Tom Daschle and several other Democratic senators held a closed-door meeting with Crippen to express their dissatisfaction with his performance. On July 28, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senator Daschle wrote Crippen that "[i]n its 25-year history, the Congressional Budget Office has never produced a document so unfair and misleading" as his re-estimate of the president's budget. "We believe," the letter continued, "your actions jeopardize the productive role CBO has played since its inception."

Finally, in August, the Democratic leaders decided to play a little hardball. They excised a pay raise for Crippen from the legislative branch spending bill. And it seems to have worked. Democrats say they are now enjoying a cautious era of good feelings with the CBO. They were particularly pleased when Crippen's CBO found that the Republican budget bill busted self-imposed spending caps.

What's unclear is whether Crippen has really cleaned up his act or whether the Democrats have just momentarily cowed him. Republicans seem to think the latter and they have started to act accordingly, by applying their own pressure. Crippen eventually got his pay raise reinstated in the final year-end budget deal. But before the bill actually went to the president, two of Crippen's onetime Republican supporters, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, again tried to strip him of his pay raise because they were unhappy with a CBO report on the defense budget. It would be a shame if the CBO director's salary became a political football every time a powerful member of Congress finds some fault in one of his calculations. But then maybe that's why the CBO director isn't supposed to get involved in partisan politics in the first place.

--Jeremy Derfner