Meet the nerds who are making life hell for the White House right now

The number crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office call it as they see it

Chris Moody
Yahoo News

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Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf (Christian Science Monitor)

Barely an hour had passed since the Congressional Budget Office unveiled a report on Feb. 4 about the Affordable Care Act’s impact on the labor market before the White House alerted reporters about a conference call with President Barack Obama’s top economist, Jason Furman.

The CBO, a nonpartisan research service that provides Congress with legislation analysis, had released a paper predicting that Americans would work less as a result of Obamacare. According to the report, workers would trim hours so they could still qualify for a federal health insurance subsidy or because they no longer needed a job to obtain health insurance. The report indicated that Obamacare would decrease labor participation by the equivalent of 2 million jobs by 2017.

Republicans, sensing an opportunity to chip away further at the reputation of a law they have spent years trying to repeal, seized on the "2 million" number and declared that Obamacare would “kill” millions of jobs.

Democrats acted fast to try to correct the misinterpretation.

“This is not businesses cutting back on jobs,” Furman said during the conference call, in an attempt to push back on the Republican talking point and put a favorable spin the CBO-provided numbers. “This is people having new choices.”

Two weeks later, the CBO released another analysis of a proposal near to the president’s heart: raising the minimum wage. And the results from this paper weren’t all good news for the administration, either.

The new report found that raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016 would result in the loss of half a million jobs, but it would also lift the wages of 16.5 million workers and lift many out of poverty. Raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour, the CBO found, would eliminate about 100,000 jobs.

Remove the part about lifting people out of poverty, and you've got yourself a Drudge siren.

Furman quickly announced another phoner with the press. This time, he wasn’t nearly as generous about the CBO’s findings. He accused the CBO of being an outlier among economists and disputed its conclusions outright.

“I don't think the way the headline number as being presented reflects the consensus view of economists on this topic,” Furman said, adding that it was “perfectly reasonable” to estimate that an increase in the minimum wage would have zero negative impact.

Democrats on Capitol Hill also moved to dispute the report by sharing a list of economists who support increasing the minimum wage and stood ready to highlight the fallibility of the CBO.

“In past years, the CBO itself has acknowledged the uncertainty of its own predictions and ignored new perspectives in the wide array of analysis on the minimum wage," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

On Wednesday, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf, the head of the organization that had caused so much frustration in the halls of the White House, had his chance to defend his team’s work.

“Our estimates are completely consistent with the balance of the evidence,” Elmendorf told reporters Wednesday morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “Our job is to provide Congress with a balanced reading, and we’ve done that.”

Elmendorf, an unassuming, bearded number cruncher with round glasses, has made a career out of analyzing federal data. He joined the CBO in 1993 as an analyst and transferred to the Brookings Institution in 2007. Elmendorf returned the CBO as director when Obama assumed office in January 2009.

Over its 40-year history, the CBO has developed a reputation as a distinctly nonbiased arbiter of federal policy, regardless of the party in power. That kind of intellectual honesty is rare in a town like Washington, but it makes for great theater when politicians hold up CBO findings as gospel one day (when it benefits their cause) and rebuke it as rubbish the next (when it hurts their cause.)

Republicans do it. Democrats do it. They all do it.

When speaking in public, Elmendorf’s constrained style is emblematic of the organization he represents. The 51-year-old economist is tremendously careful not to make a claim unless it’s backed by vetted data. If he can’t quantify it, he won’t say it.

For example, when a reporter on Thursday asked if he thought the Affordable Care Act’s impact on the labor supply was a “tragedy to lament,” he quickly responded: “Um, we don’t use words like that.”

“My personal views about economic policy are completely irrelevant to the work that we do,” he went on to say. “Congress does not care what we would do personally about a policy and they should not care about it. They hired us to do objective analysis, and that’s what we do.”

Elmendorf also pushed back on accusations that the CBO changes its analysis based on political pressure, which can be a mighty force when emanating from the White House, regardless of the administration.

“We don’t do anything differently when we think there will be more or less adverse reaction from different people,” he said. “That’s just not what we do.”

The new media landscape has forced the CBO to contend with a whole new set of challenges.

While partisans have used CBO data to promote their own political causes since its founding, social media only amplifies the problem. Incorrect headlines — such as “Obamacare will kill 2 million jobs,” for instance,  spread much faster online in the superconnected 21st century than in the days of faxed press releases and hard-copy newspapers.

It’s a problem, Elmendorf said, but one the organizations strives to combat whenever possible. The CBO’s spokeswoman, Deborah Kilroe, is known to call journalists who she thinks may be interpreting the data incorrectly, although it can be difficult to manage a report's reception given the rapid online feedback loop that can quickly set a narrative.

“We recognize that in this case and in many others that the work that we do is technically complicated. People who read it will misunderstand it sometimes,” Elmendorf said. “Our job is to basically do the analysis and give it to Congress. It's not to be the sort of hall monitor in the Twitterverse about our work.”

Although the most recent reports have given Republicans reasons to cheer, the GOP shouldn't rest easy. It's only a matter of time before they'll call for their own CBO conference calls.

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