Wonk Wars

You may not know who runs the Congressional Budget Office, but Republicans may go to blows over who gets to run it next.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf testifies on Capitol Hill in 2013 in Washington.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Congressional Budget Office director’s odds of being reappointed might not be the single sexiest news story of the day. Then again, Republicans don’t need a story to be sexy in order to get themselves worked up about it. And right now the brewing conflict over who will lead the CBO is just one of a growing number of potential rifts among the Republican rank and file.

First, a word on one of Washington’s wonkiest bodies. The CBO is a nonpartisan agency that calculates the impact pending legislation could have on the federal budget and the economy as a whole. That analysis of how a bill would impact the government’s revenues and the economy as a whole is called a score. The speaker of the House and the president pro-tem of the Senate (Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Orrin Hatch, respectively) will soon jointly appoint a CBO director for a term that will begin in January. One important detail in the process for naming the head of the CBO is that the House and Senate budget committees take turns recommending who the new director ought to be. The Senate made the last recommendation, so now it’s the House’s turn.

Since the GOP will control both chambers during the next Congress, some on the right are pushing for Republicans to pick a CBO director other than the current one, former Brookings Institution senior fellow Doug Elmendorf. Elmendorf has loyal backers in conservative circles (more on that in a minute), but he also has drawn substantial criticism for the method he used to score the Senate Gang of Eight’s immigration bill and, per Red State, for being “a dyed-in-the-wool leftist.” CBO directors don’t have term limits, so Elmendorf could keep the gig. But many influential activists on the right don’t want that to happen.

There are two basic schools of thought on the right about whether Elmendorf is the man for the job (and I’m painting with extremely broad brushstrokes here, for what that’s worth). The first favors Elmendorf’s re-appointment. In this school are the American Enterprise Institute’s deputy director of economic policy studies, Michael Strain; the former chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, Gregory Mankiw; and Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve. Strain made the case for Elmendorf’s continued reign at the CBO in a writeup for National Review Online. He credits him for the CBO’s “reputation of impartiality during his tenure” and implies that congressional Republicans may not have a better alternative.

“A CBO director less dedicated to solid, mainstream, academic, non-partisan analysis could put a large dent in the quality of the CBO’s work and reputation,” Strain writes. “That would be bad, a very bad outcome indeed.”

But there seems to be a bit of a subtext here: If Elmendorf is out, what kind of loon would House Republicans pick?

The other school of thought holds that Elmendorf is totally untenable as CBO director. Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist is a vocal member of this school, as are American Commitment’s Phil Kerpen and Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Dan Holler, a Heritage Action spokesman, was unequivocal in his opposition to Elmendorf’s re-appointment.

“It’s absurd if the Republican-controlled Congress would keep the guy who was at the CBO during Obamacare, especially in light of everything that [Obamacare adviser Jonathan] Gruber has said about the scoring and the sort of implicit misdirection that Congress employed and Elmendorf went along with,” he said.

“Appointing him again is a sign that they’re not ready to change Washington,” he added. “And the message from the last election is that Washington needs to change.”

Kerpen was comparably vehement in his opposition to Elmendorf’s return.

“I would imagine that if this actually looked like it were going to happen, we could get a very large and vocal contingent of almost every conservative to weigh in against it,” he said.

(The specifics of this debate get really wonky really fast. If you’re interested in more detail, you can read much more here at the Washington Post.)

So is it going to happen? A House aide close to the ongoing process said decision-makers are currently looking at an array of candidates. The aide didn’t mention specific names. The big question now is: Will this disagreement flare up? Heritage Action has long been a thorn in the House leadership’s side, and grass-roots conservatives’ anger with Jonathan Gruber could well tarnish Elmendorf’s reputation as a nonpartisan and an honest broker.

Capitol Hill Republicans aren’t even in charge yet, but a number of potential conflicts are already being set in motion. Elmendorf may be the wonkiest, but Republicans have fought over less.