The tiresome tether of the CBO

Who will replace John Yarmuth as House Budget Chair?

On November 5th, the corporate wing of the House Democrats prevailed in a months-long showdown with progressives over the fate of the Biden agenda. For months, the White House had sided with the Congressional Progressive Caucus on the insistence that the climate-populist agenda packaged into the Build Back Better Act (BBB) be passed with the more industry-friendly and status-quo-preserving infrastructure bill (the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, or BIF).

After the deflating Virginia elections1, the White House folded, ceding to a compromise in which the House passed the BIF2 in return for a signed pledge from five of the corporatists that they would vote on BBB after a review from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO):

“We commit to voting for the Build Back Better Act, in its current form other than technical changes, as expeditiously as we receive fiscal information from the Congressional Budget Office — but in no event later than the week of November 15th — consistent with the toplines for revenues and investments in the ‘White House Preliminary Budget Estimate of the Build Back Better Act’ document presented to the Democratic Caucus on November 4, 2021 by the White House.”

“Democrats owe a debt of thanks to the House moderates,” crooned D.C. grande dame Karen Tumulty, calling CBO analyses “the gold standard of government work.”

In The New York Times piece by Margot Sanger-Katz and Emily Cochrane, a cavalcade of Republicans and corporate lobbyists likened the CBO to the “adult in the room” tasked with “monitoring a kindergarten class during arts and crafts.”

Since the creation of the Congressional Budget Office in the 1970s, a deep devotion to “non-partisan” CBO “fiscal responsibility referees” has prevailed in Congress, and led the Washington press corps to be quite selective about who gets considered the adult in the room. 

Perhaps that is why very few reporters have highlighted the irony of the House corporatists’ Senate counterpart, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), slashing major climate provisions from the BBB Act out of supposed concern for his grandchildren

Throughout the Build Back Better negotiation process, Manchin has displayed a stunning level of ignorance on essential questions about how our economic and financial system works, and what the US government can “afford.”

One notable exception to the unwillingness to call out Manchin has been Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Chair of the House Committee on the Budget, who said aloud what few others would: 

I read Joe Manchin's statement, I've listened to him. He has no understanding of how the federal government monetary system works when he compared it yesterday to his household income. That has no relevance to what we can do.

In October, Yarmuth announced his retirement at the end of this session of Congress. As Budget Chair, he has been the first important fiscal policymaker to openly embrace the economic school of thought known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).3 Yarmuth has generally been a solid progressive, and he will be missed, especially if Kentucky Republicans succeed in carving up his Louisville district beyond recognition. 

Committee leadership battles like the one that will soon take place to succeed Yarmuth as the most senior Budget Committee Democrat can have very significant policy implications. For instance, in 2008, Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) successful bid to overthrow Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) as Energy and Commerce Chair ensured that House efforts to enact health care reform and economy-wide climate legislation were shepherded by an accomplished progressive legislator and veteran of successful efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act rather than a well-known obstacle to fuel efficiency and renewable energy standards on behalf of polluting industry

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More recently, the 2017 resignation of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) shortly before Democrats took back the House majority created a contest between Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) for the top spot on the House Committee on the Judiciary. Progressive activists in the then-nascent New Brandeisian movement predicted at the time that the leadership fight would have important ramifications for antitrust. And indeed it has: in June, Chair Nadler pushed through a sweeping set of antitrust reforms over the opposition of Lofgren, who seems to be organizing fellow Silicon Valley Democrats to stop the bills before they reach the House floor. 

Thus far, Yarmuth’s announcement has not set off a furious scramble among Democrats eager to replace him in the next Congress. This may be because it’s early, or because Democrats are pessimistic about their chances to retain the majority. 

This may also be because the Budget Committee is not seen as particularly powerful. Despite the visible role that the House Budget Chair plays in initiating the budget reconciliation processincreasingly important, due to the Senate’s failure to eliminate the filibuster—the Budget Committee sets overall frameworks, but it’s the House Committee on Appropriations that actually determines what we spend money on.

However, hidden within the Budget Committee’s jurisdiction is a crucial function that is central to most everything Congress does: 

“review on a continuing basis the conduct by the Congressional Budget Office of its functions and duties.”

Embedded within that power is a vital question at the heart of the conflict between Green New Deal champions and Manchin-style deficit hawks: as the economic damage and financial disruption from climate pollution grows, will the CBO continue to downplay the costs of inaction? And perhaps more importantly, should the CBO even exist?

… Coming for subscribers … an investigation of how and why the Congressional Budget Office has stymied federal climate action over the years …

1. Hill Heat’s Climate Politics Almanac will explore the elections and politics of Virginia in detail later—make sure to subscribe.

2. H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed 228-206. The only Democrats to vote against the package were the six members of the Squad; 13 moderate Republicans voted for it.

3. Curiously, Yarmuth has questioned the Green New Deal on budget-deficit grounds (helping motivate state Rep. Attica Scott’s primary challenge), even though a guiding principle behind MMT is that we should print money to support a Green New Deal, because non-financial deficits such as our shrinking carbon budget pose far more real and dire threats than the federal budget deficit.

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