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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 of staff.

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 primary mission.

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 Kool-Aid."

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 anything."

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 important issues.

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 said.

Staff Correspondents Richard E. Cohen, Julie Kosterlitz, and Marilyn Werber Serafini contributed to this report.

John Maggs and David Baumann National Journal
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