What's Wrong With Budget Targets?

| Tue Dec. 22, 2009 1:50 PM EST

There are plenty of legitimate objections to the Senate healthcare bill, but some of them are just getting crazy.  Here's Megan McArdle:

[My biggest procedural objection] is that I am beginning to believe that in order to get this bill passed, the Democrats basically gutted the CBO.  Not because they were working with the CBO to get estimates — that's the CBO's job, to provide Congress with a cost.  But rather, because this bill was something novel in the history of legislation.  Previous congresses wrote bills, and then trimmed them to get a better CBO score: witness the Bush tax cut sunsets.  But the Congressional Democrats started out with a CBO score they wanted, and worked backward to the bill.  They've been pretty explicit about the fact that no one wants this actual bill; rather, the plan is to pass basically anything, and then go and totally rewrite it when the budget spotlight is off.  I'm not aware of any other piece of legislation that was passed this way.

Essentially, the Democrats have finished the process of gaming the CBO scores.  They're now meaningless.  You don't pass a piece of legislation that bears any resemblance to what you intend to end up with; you pass a piece of legislation that gets a good CBO score, and then go and alter it piece by piece.

I don't even understand this.  Why is it OK to trim a bill to meet some kind of budget target but not OK to have a budget target in the first place? What's the difference?

I'm equally mystified about how any of this amounts to "gaming" the CBO process.  Politicians routinely pass half a loaf if they can't get everything they want, and then keep trying down the road to get the rest. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. It depends on whether they can round up the votes for it — and PAYGO rules apply regardless of whether they do it this year or next. As for "totally rewriting" the bill once the budget spotlight is off, actual Democratic leaders don't seem to have any intention at all of doing this (to the dismay of some bloggers and pundits). At least, none of them have said so. Where does this come from?

Weird stuff.  But then again, Sarah Palin is already reprising her greatest hits, tweeting, "R death panels back in?" I think the answer is no, but perhaps it's one of the things Harry Reid plans to slide back in as soon as the budget spotlight is off. Better go tell grandma.