Congressional Budget Office: Sometimes Wonks Have To Explain Their Work To Morons

08/27/2010 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Allow me to state for the record that I have great sympathy for the dedicated professionals at the Congressional Budget Office. In Washington's partisan environment, they are everybody's fair-weather friend. When the CBO tells one tribe the precise thing they want to hear, there's no end to the hallelujahs about how a CBO confirmation is the equivalent of the Word of God. But when the CBO's estimates run afoul of the same tribe, the praise chorus abruptly stops, and is replaced by no end of angry rending and gnashing. Sometimes these shifts take place in a matter of days. It can be intensely frustrating to witness.

A less celebrated problem that the CBO faces on a daily basis is that sometimes, they have to explain their work to complete morons.

Sarabeth Guthberg at related one such instance, today. See, Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) got a wee bit confused over a matter of grade-school mathematics. So he asked the CBO to clarify: if provisions of the Affordable Care Act that the CBO projected to reduce the deficit by $455 billion (over ten years) were subsequently repealed, what would be the net impact on the deficit?

With the patience of saints, the CBO replied:

Finally, you asked what the net deficit impact would be if certain provisions of PPACA and the Reconciliation Act that were estimated to generate net savings were eliminated --- specifically, those which were originally estimated to generate a net reduction in mandatory outlays of $455 billion over the 2010-2019 period. The estimate of $455 billion mentioned in your letter represents the net effects of many provisions. Some of those provisions generated savings for Medicare, Medicaid, or the Children's Health Insurance Program, and some generated costs. If those provisions were repealed, CBO estimates that there would be an increase in deficits similar to its original estimate of $455 billion in net savings over that period.

And that's the incredibly true story of how the CBO had to explain to Mike Crapo that if x = x, then x = x.