Republicans on Wednesday criticized as inappropriate a meeting President Obama held Monday with the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf.
Elmendorf, a Democratic appointee, has been a thorn in the side of President Obama and congressional Democrats for the way he has analyzed health care reform legislation. In their view, Elmendorf hasn’t sufficiently given their health care reform proposals enough credit for cutting costs – which has caused them political problems in getting the legislation passed. Last week, frustrated at one analysis by Elmendorf, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., snapped, "what he should do is maybe run for Congress.”
“No one blames Mr. Elmendorf for accepting an invitation from the President of the United States,” House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.“The issue is whether it was appropriate for the White House to invite him to discuss pending legislation before Congress at all.”
Said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky: "I noticed that the CBO director was sort of called down to the White House yesterday. It strikes me as somewhat akin as the owner of the team asking the umpires to come up to the owner's box."
McConnell said that "if the CBO is to have credibility, they're the umpire. They're not players in this game."
CBO is tasked with providing “objective, nonpartisan, and timely analyses to aid in economic and budgetary decisions on the wide array of programs covered by the federal budget.”
The White House flatly rejected the idea that there was anything untoward about the invitation or the meeting, which took place on Monday for just under an hour. In addition to the president and Elmendorf, present in the meeting were White House officials such as Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Phil Schiliro, Director of the White House Office of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle, Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag (a former CBO director himself), National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Christy Romer, senior adviser David Axelrod, and press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Others were there as well, including Department of Health and Human Services adviser Meena Seshamani, Harvard University economist David Cutler and Alice Rivlin of the Brookings Institute, who was founding director of CBO from 1975-1983.
“The President invited the director to the White House to discuss health care reform and reducing health care costs,” said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin.
Gibbs described the meeting as a way to discuss ways to reduce health care costs, with no discussion of the CBO methodologies that have annoyed Democrats in their drive to pass health care reform legislation.
Former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican appointee who advised the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that he never had a private meeting at the White House during his time helming CBO, from 2003 to 2005.
“The only appearance could be that they’re leaning on him,” Holtz-Eakin said. “CBO was created for Congress, for independent analysis. The White House did him (Elmendorf) a terrible disservice.”
Writing about the meeting on his blog, Elmendorf said President Obama asked him and other outside experts for their “views about achieving cost savings in health reform. I presented CBO’s assessment of the challenges of reducing federal health outlays and improving the long-term budget outlook while simultaneously expanding health insurance coverage..”
He said those in the meeting also discussed “various policy options that could produce budgetary savings in the long run.” He described why last week he assessed the health care legislation offered by Senate Democrats as failing in the president’s stated goal of bending the cost curve of health care. “In the legislation that has been reported we do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount,” Elmendorf testified last week. “And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs.”
He said it was exciting to meet the president and be in the Oval Office and his children will be jealous “when they get back from summer camp and hear about it. “
“Of course,” Elmendorf wrote, “the setting of the conversation and the nature of the participants do not affect CBO’s analysis of health reform legislation. “
"One of the things that's disappointing about CBO — and frustrating — is all the work…done on prevention" that the CBO doesn’t factor in, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., co-author of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee legislation, recently griped.
"You don't get the benefit in CBO of cost-savings with prevention programs,” Dodd said. They'll tell you how much an anti-smoking program may cost. They don't tell you the benefit occurs when a number of people stop smoking."
During the health care town hall meeting, President Obama said, "the Congressional Budget Office, the CBO, which sort of polices what all various programs cost, they're not willing to credit us with those savings. They say, ‘That may be nice, that may save a lot of money, but we can't be certain.’ So we expect that not only are we going to pay for health care reform in a deficit-neutral way, but that's it also going to achieve big savings across the system — including in the private sector where the Congressional Budget Office never gives us any credit — but if hospitals and doctors are starting to operate in a smarter way, that's going to help you even if you're not involved in a government system."
Before that, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that "it's always been a source, yes I will say frustration, for many of us in Congress that the CBO will always give you the worst case scenario on one initiative and never … any credit for anything that happens if you have early intervention, health care. If you have prevention, if you have wellness … you name any positive investment that we make, that we know reduces cost, brings money to the Treasury in the case of education but never scored positively by the CBO. Yes, it is frustrating."
Pelosi said, "I hope we will see them say, 'This is what we see the cost of something. We have not accounted for the benefits' because they don't and they haven't and it should not be inferred from what they do that they have."
Holtz-Eakin, who said he’s starting a think tank, added that if the White House was interested in Elmendorf’s views or suggestions, they needed to just have “read the CBO studies and left it at that. A wiser White House than this one would have seen that….These guys may have I.Q. points off the scale, but a reverence for institutions and something about a respect for the process is not their strong point.”
*This post was updated with McConnell's comments.