BUDGET: Speaking His Mind
Dan Crippen has a little advice for his boss. Actually, a lot of advice.
As director of the Congressional Budget Office, Crippen effectively works
for Congress, preparing nonpartisan forecasts and budget analyses. This
detail about the source of his paycheck, however, doesn't seem to
discourage Crippen from pointing out, often at length, how some powerful
committee chairmen and some equally powerful congressional staffers are
making a mess of the government's finances.
It is far past time, he says, to be alarmed about the unwillingness of
congressional leaders to confront the looming bankruptcy of the Social
Security system. In Crippen's view, no one on Capitol Hill is serious
about tackling the issue. "They pay lip service, but I'm not even
sure anyone understands the extent of the problem," he said. Early in
his tenure, Crippen cheerfully broke a CBO taboo by offering his opinions
on several pieces of pending legislation. He was also accused of using a
graph on the cover of the agency's annual budget outlook to score
political points against President Clinton. Crippen's response was,
"I guess the truth makes some people uncomfortable." And now,
Crippen is charging Republicans with foolishly wanting to tinker with
economic forecasting rules. "Some people, I think, are trying to find
convenient ways to deal with the budget deficit," he says. And both
parties, according to the CBO director, are only pretending to know how
much it will cost to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
"Who knows? At the end of the day, it is going to $350 billion, plus
or minus $100 billion." he said.
Not long after congressional Republicans appointed Crippen to the CBO in
1999, Democratic aides mounted a secret effort to get him fired, trying to
muster a platoon of Washington budget experts to deliver a sort of
no-confidence vote. The effort fizzled, and Democratic aides are now
praising Crippen for standing up to Republicans-who are seething about the
Republican director's dissent from the party line.
"We had serious concerns when he was first appointed, because he had
the most-political background in the history of the agency," said
Thomas Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee.
However, as it turned out, Kahn said, Crippen "has been an excellent
director, and he's been very fair."
Crippen chuckles at this compliment. "I'm fair when I agree with
them," he said.
Every now and then, someone comes along in Washington who attains a
prominent position yet displays a rare willingness to speak his mind. In
his day, Daniel Patrick Moynihan made a career of it, ticking off first
his Republican bosses in the executive branch and then his Democratic
colleagues in the Senate. President Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett
Koop, was always causing problems for the administration, refusing, for
example, to soft-pedal the facts about tobacco, or the medical effects of
abortion. Former Sens. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Warren Rudman, R-N.H., were
so consistent in bucking their parties that they have established new
careers as professional nonpartisans, heading up one blue-ribbon
commission after another.
It is no coincidence that most of these straight talkers eventually decide
to pursue their crusades outside of government-and sometimes outside of
Washington. If Crippen sounds even more outspoken than usual lately, it is
probably because he has decided not to seek a second four-year hitch with
CBO after his term ends in December. (Republicans probably would not have
reappointed him anyway.) Incidentally, in case Congress is looking for
some advice about his successor, Crippen has an emphatic
recommendation-Barry Anderson, his deputy. Anderson is a conservative who
has ruffled feathers among CBO's career economists and among Democrats in
Congress. Nonetheless, Crippen is willing to predict that Anderson will be
the eventual choice for the job.
In an interview with National Journal on June 27, Crippen was
characteristically blunt about the budgetary challenges facing the federal
government-and about the shortcomings he finds in those entrusted with
tackling these problems. (See Q&A, p. 2003.) He expressed disdain for
lawmakers who would embrace a new, rosier approach to budgeting ("I
think you destroy the credibility of the CBO as an institution") and
disgust for those who, he says, unfairly blame the agency for delaying
legislation ("I've seen more and more abuse of us in a kind of
gratuitous, unnecessary way").
As a young economist during the Nixon years, Crippen worked on the
legislation that helped to create the Congressional Budget Office and give
Congress a much larger role in federal budget-making. Now, Crippen says,
he plans to use an upcoming public appearance to announce that this
30-year experiment in legislative budgeting has failed. As he puts it,
"The budget process is about dead." In the future, the executive
branch must reassert its dominant budgetary role, according to Crippen,
who was a top budget aide to former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker,
R-Tenn., and followed his boss downtown when Baker became Reagan's chief
The breakdown of the budget process, Crippen says, has made CBO especially
vulnerable to those would chip away its independence. That's why the
director gets so exercised about the recent sniping from the Hill about
CBO's competence and objectivity. He said, "Whether on purpose or
not, it undermines our credibility, and ultimately," it undermines
CBO's independence. "People think they can get away with a cheap shot
because we usually don't bite back," Crippen added, with a smile that
revealed no shortage of teeth.
Crippen, 50, was controversial from the moment he was recommended for the
CBO job by then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M.
Past directors had been academic economists who were somewhat removed from
the rough-and-tumble of politics. Crippen had spent a decade as a
lobbyist, and though trained as an economist, he was not considered to be
a professional of the caliber of such past directors as Rudy Penner, a
recognized expert on the kind of economic forecasting that is CBO's
Democrats were immediately concerned about Crippen. One staffer collected
a roster of his alleged transgressions, including his outright endorsement
of a health care bill sponsored by Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and his
strongly implied endorsement of pension legislation written by Sen. Phil
Gramm, R-Texas. "CBO has no place telling Congress what it should
do," the aide said.
Another House Democratic aide recently allowed that his side had been a
little too hasty in deciding that Crippen was a simple partisan. "He
was given a bit of a bum rap," the aide said. "Early on, a lot
of Democrats were always inclined to believe the worst." Democrats
attributed political motives to Crippen's actions, the aide said, adding
that ultimately, "He's done a good job of defending the career folks
at CBO and the integrity of the place."
Lately, Crippen's most vocal critics have been House Republicans. The
newspaper Roll Call quoted House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle,
R-Iowa, in May as proffering this succinct opinion to colleagues:
"CBO sucks." House Republicans used economic estimates from the
Office of Management and Budget in writing their fiscal 2003 budget
resolution, questioning the accuracy of CBO's estimates. And Nussle has
launched a series of oversight hearings focusing on the budget office. At
the first session, Nussle emphasized that he wanted to improve CBO's
"customer service" to Congress.
An aide to a House Republican blamed poor communication for CBO's clashes
with authorizing committees and the House Budget Committee. Committee
chairmen have written legislation, sent it to CBO, and been shocked at the
CBO cost estimates, the aide said. If chairmen exchanged information with
CBO sooner in the legislative process, the aide said, they would not be
surprised by the agency's estimates.
Still, some House Republicans have been angered by Crippen's unwillingness
to provide rosier CBO estimates of the impacts of tax-cut legislation. One
Democratic source said, "It's ironic that some ideologues are
attacking him ... because he's not willing to drink the
Many say that it all just goes with the territory. No CBO director is
going to make many friends on Capitol Hill, said an ex-aide to a former
senior House Republican. "By definition, a CBO director is going to
be perceived as doing a lousy job," he said. "Nobody likes the
referee. If the CBO director is getting kudos, he's not doing
Robert Reischauer, one of Crippen's predecessors in the job, said that he,
too, ended up angering chairmen and staffers, merely by defending the
inconvenient truths that CBO's career economists are paid to deliver. Now
president of the Urban Institute, Reischauer said that he took his lumps
and, like other directors, also did his share of straight talking on
Reischauer recalls that when he was an economist at the Brookings
Institution in the early 1970s, he was contacted by the chairman of the
government department at the University of South Dakota, who wanted to
come in with his research assistant to talk about federal revenue sharing
with the states. "In comes this big guy with a bushy beard, and a
skinny little guy who looks like he's recently out of high school,"
Reischauer said. "The big guy does all the talking and seems to know
the most." The big guy with the beard was soon working at Brookings,
and only later did Reischauer and his colleagues learn that the burly
Crippen was actually just the research assistant.
Crippen is still a big guy with a bushy beard, and he combines the
self-assurance he's shown from a young age with shyness and a
self-deprecating style. After flouting some CBO traditions in his early
days there, Crippen has become an unswerving defender of the agency and of
its mandate to stay above the political process.
Evidence of Crippen's independence includes his recent dissent from the
longtime Republican advocacy of "dynamic scoring," a budgeting
premise under which the loss of government revenue from tax cuts is offset
somewhat by the added revenue expected to come from the higher growth
produced by lower taxes. Dynamic scoring could lower the $1.3 trillion
price tag for the Bush tax cuts and the ballooning budget deficit. Crippen
says he, too, believes that tax cuts will raise revenue by stimulating the
economy, but he maintains that the evidence isn't strong enough to make
such an estimate dependable and thus justify changing CBO's way of
scoring. For Crippen, the easy way out as a Republican and former
lobbyist, in the end, conflicts too much with his stewardship of an agency
charged with guarding its numbers from bias.
Colleagues also hint at another source of Crippen's recent willingness to
eschew party-line thinking. His wife, Lee, became ill as he was preparing
to start work at CBO, and she died not long into his term. Around the same
time, Crippen, who had used his riches from lobbying to build a home in
the Caribbean, was seriously injured in a boating accident there. Crippen
went through months of withdrawal from life and work, and then gradually
returned with a newly patient and philosophical attitude. He says he
doesn't think he's changed that much, but he credits his late wife with
helping him find the energy and commitment to sound the alarm about Social
Security, Medicare, and the threat to the budget process.
Crippen says he won't go back to lobbying after he leaves CBO. His hope is
to secure some kind of think-tank or academic post that will allow him to
pursue research and policy advocacy in what's become his primary
interest-health care reform. Until then, he has no plans to stifle his
missionary zeal. "Oh, I imagine I'll keep at it," he
Staff Correspondents Richard E. Cohen, Julie Kosterlitz, and Marilyn
Werber Serafini contributed to this report.
John Maggs and David Baumann