How Two Little-Known Offices Will Shape the Vote on the Health Care Bill

Washington — The complex, highly partisan closing push for healthcare reform is, in many ways, coming down to two Washington institutions whose devotion to nonpartisanship and a mastery of the arcane make them virtually inside-the-Beltway priesthoods: the Congressional Budget Office and the Senate Parliamentarian’s Office.

The CBO will score how much the House “fixes” will actually cost the federal government. With many conservative Democrats wavering in their support for the bill precisely because of deficit concerns, the CBO’s score will likely determine what gets passed and when.

The rulings of the Senate Parliamentarian, meanwhile, will shape the course of those fixes when they come to votes in the Senate.

Despite the enormous responsibility now heaped on these two offices, however, there has been barely a peep from either side of the aisle accusing either of mismanagement or partisanship. Even in highly partisan times, both retain a reputation for independence and a mastery of highly specialized data without peer.

“There’s so much credibility in the CBO and parliamentarian’s office, based on decades being consummate professionals, and that’s going to serve everyone well,” says Ralph Neas, CEO of the National Coalition on Health Care, which is lobbying for reform.

“We’re not talking about inexperienced rookies but the best-qualified people in the world to be in this situation, with decades of experience and thousands of tough decisions they have made,” he added.

The Congressional Budget Office

The CBO was created in the Budget Reform Act of 1974 to give Congress independent information and expertise in budget disputes with the White House. Strictly nonpartisan and famously impervious to leaks, CBO scores the cost of proposed legislation to the federal government.

But the heart of CBO’s value to Congress is the process leading up to those scores: staffers ask probing questions to clarify the purpose of legislation, and they have a robust back-and-forth with lawmakers to bring scores to an acceptable range.

“They go out of their way to not be part of the Washington scene,” says federal budget expert Stan Collender, a partner at Qorvis Communications in Washington. “Some analysts have been there since the beginning – more than 30 years.”

The business of economic projection is highly controversial. CBO and the White House Office of Management and Budget rarely agree on assumptions or projections. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle still commonly refer to the CBO as “the gold standard,” even when they don’t always agree with its conclusions.

“My frustration with CBO is that our committee meetings with CBO aren’t open to the public and press,” says Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, referring to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s meetings with CBO director Douglas Elmendorf on healthcare reform. “The public should know the thinking that goes into those cost estimates.”

The Senate Parliamentarian’s Office

The office of the Senate parliamentarian – now, the parliamentarian plus three assistants – was created in 1935 to keep track of Senate rules and precedents. The job requires a formidable memory, mastery of those rules and precedents, and absolute discretion.

The process of budget reconciliation – the rules-heavy vehicle expected to be used to move fixes on healthcare reform through the Senate without a filibuster – gives the parliamentarian even greater responsibilities.

By one of the rules of reconciliation, each part of a provision must meet the requirement of reducing the budget. The parliamentarian will advise the chair whether the healthcare fixes do. Indeed, once the parliamentarian has the CBO scores, he must go through legislation paragraph by paragraph to make sure every provision meets that standard.

“It takes years because there is no training that leads you to that office. All of the training is in that office,” says former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove.

“It is only in that office that the precedents of the Senate are kept, and your job is to know them, and there are thousands of them. Only in that office do you have access to the Senate floor on a regular basis, and only in that office will you be approached by both sides on every parliamentary issue that occurs. Based on those things, you will learn to be a parliamentarian,” he adds.

After 10 years in the parliamentarian’s office, Alan Frumin was appointed to the top job by Democrats in 1987, dismissed in 1995 when Republicans took back control of the Senate, then reappointed in 2001 after Republican majority leader Trent Lott dismissed Mr. Dove for rulings not to his liking. Recently, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina accused Frumin of partisan bias, but later apologized on the floor.

“If the parliamentarian gets dragged into the partisan battles and becomes seen as the tool of one party or another, it damages an important part of the institution,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“The new media environment amplifies the importance of these two bodies [CBO and Parliamentarian],” he adds. “With the increasing number of sources of information people can get because of the web, it’s doubling important for the public to have at least one source for these congressionalrules and numbers that they can turn to.”