Nov. 2 — Control of the White House, the House and the Senate aren’t the only things on the ballot Nov. 8. Indirectly, so is the future of dynamic budget scoring, a method of assessing how proposed legislation would impact the federal budget.
While the House is expected to remain under Republican control, and dynamic scoring thus is likely to remain in that chamber, the picture in the Senate is much less clear. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the current ranking member on the Budget Committee and likely new chairman in a Democrat-controlled Senate, has often been critical of dynamic scoring.
Add the little-noticed changeover to dynamic scoring and there could be a variety of outcomes, ranging from both chambers nominally keeping the current process intact to a complete divergence between the two chambers, resulting in competing House and Senate scores for a single bill.
Bill Hoagland, a longtime Republican budget staffer on Capitol Hill who’s now senior vice president for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he thinks Sanders’s preference would be to get rid of dynamic scoring.
“One way or another, I think the use of dynamic scoring goes down,” he said.
In dynamic scoring, a bill’s estimated budget impact, as scored by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) or sometimes both, is assessed through whatever direct policy changes it may contain but also through any feedback effects it may have on the larger economy.
Critics say assessing those feedback effects is difficult at best, and the results often depend on underlying assumptions. Supporters say it gives lawmakers a better idea of a bill’s true cost and whether the bill would help or hinder the economy. Under current rules, the CBO and JCT generally provide dynamic budget scores only for bills with significant impacts on the economy, defined as changes in revenue, mandatory spending or deficits at least equal to a quarter-percentage-point of gross domestic product or greater.
In the Senate, Republicans currently control 54 seats, while Democrats and independents who caucus and vote with them, including Sanders, hold 46. If Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wins, Democrats would need only to win a net four seats to wrest control of the Senate away from Republicans.
There is more doubt about the fate of dynamic scoring in the Senate than the House, in part because of the differences in the way the change was implemented. That’s because the language in the budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 11) adopted in 2015 to allow for dynamic scoring applies only to the 114th Congress, which formally ends in January 2016. While House Republicans adopted dynamic scoring as a rule that would require a change in that chamber’s rules to repeal it—an unlikely prospect short of a Democratic takeover—the language in the resolution would appear to mean the default in the Senate would be to revert back to conventional scoring in the 115th Congress.
And that would likely be fine with Sanders, judging from his past statements.
In a Jan. 7, 2015, tweet, made not long after House Republicans enshrined the methodology in their chamber rules, Sanders expressed skepticism about dynamic scoring. “The purpose of dynamic scoring is to conceal—not reveal—how Republican policies will affect the economy,” he tweeted.
“The Republicans are politicizing the budget process in a way that will undermine the credibility of the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, which have provided unbiased, nonpartisan analysis on the cost of tax and spending bills,” Sanders said in a blog posting that same day.
Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis did not return repeated requests for comment.
Sanders could, however, face pressure to keep dynamic scoring intact from an unexpected source—a Hillary Clinton administration. Two items among Clinton’s major legislative priorities would likely benefit from being dynamically scored—comprehensive immigration overhaul and an international corporate tax-for-infrastructure spending deal.
The immigration proposal already has precedent for being dynamically scored, as the 2013 Senate bill (S. 744) was subject to a dynamic look before the Congressional Budget Office was required to use the method on big bills. At the time, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf said using a dynamic analysis was justified because the bill made a major change in one of the economy’s fundamental inputs: growth in the labor force.
The language in the budget resolution would also allow dynamic scoring to be used for estimating the impact of major trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Whether Sanders would want to retain that language to apply to a renewed dynamic scoring authority in the 115th Congress is unclear.
Hoagland said Sanders would have to at least talk to Clinton about the issue of dynamic scoring.
As the Budget Committee chairman, Sanders would be widely seen as having the authority to determine which set of numbers—a conventional score in the Senate or a dynamic score from the House—would be used to determine whether a bill faces procedural challenges on the Senate floor. Even if the budget resolution had extended dynamic scoring into the 115th Congress, Hoagland said Sanders would be within his rights to say conventional scoring would instead be used for point of order challenges on the floor.
But he said Sanders would have to be consistent. “I don’t think he could pick and choose,” Hoagland said. “I think that would be a little bit unlikely.”
A request for comment on the Clinton campaign’s stance on dynamic scoring was not returned.
Getting dynamic scoring adopted was one of the major reasons Republicans wanted to regain control of the Senate in 2014. Looking ahead then to being chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, now-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), told a conference sponsored by the Financial Services Roundtable that dynamic scoring would help expedite a complete overhaul of the tax system.
“Without getting into the details, we have to have the Senate to be able do that. Ways and Means and Senate Finance control the Joint Committee on Taxation jointly, so you have to have both if you want to fix and improve your scorekeeping,” Ryan said Sept. 18, 2014. “Econometrics has evolved to a place where, with conservative econometric modeling we can get much, much, much more closer to the truth and the reality based on experience. So we want to use that experience in using the tools.”
Losing dynamic scoring, particularly in the Senate where various deficit-related points of order floor challenges remain, would be seen as a setback by many conservatives and libertarians. Curtis Dubay, research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, recently wrote that dynamic scoring has become accepted practice, especially with its use by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in analyzing the Clinton and Donald Trump tax proposals.
“Now that the TPC has accepted it, dynamic scoring is being conducted by all of the major players in the tax policy world, making it standard practice. Reverting to static scoring now would be akin to using the Postal Service to mail a letter rather than sending an e-mail or a text message,” Dubay wrote in an Oct. 31 post on Heritage’s website.
Elmendorf, the ex-CBO director, said producing two sets of scores—one dynamic for the House and one conventional for the Senate—would not add much work for the CBO, but could have other complications. “Having multiple bottom lines would probably generate some confusion among Members of Congress and the general public,” he told Bloomberg BNA.
Hoagland said he did not think dynamic scoring has had either the impact its foes feared or its advocates touted, being limited to only a handful of bills and its results not being vastly different from conventional scores so far.
“It has an effect, but it’s not the big effect people thought it would have,” he said.
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