By Jonathan Nicholson
Jan. 6 — The House adopted a major change in the way congressional scorekeepers will assess the cost of some legislation, requiring the use of dynamic scoring when bills have a large impact on spending, revenue or the budget deficit.
The change, contained in the traditional first-day-of-session House rules package (H. Res. 5) for the 114th Congress, sets the stage for the House and the Senate to potentially work from two different sets of numbers as they consider the same legislation, and could make tax cuts—as part of a tax overhaul package—much easier to achieve on a revenue-neutral basis.
The resolution was approved Jan. 6 on a mostly party-line 234-172 vote. Democrats said the move was an attempt by Republicans to tip the scorekeeping scales in favor of Republican priorities on upcoming bills, while Republicans said it gives lawmakers more complete information on legislation under consideration.
The action affects only bills under consideration by the House. The Senate, also under Republican control for the first time since 2006, has yet to signal whether it will follow in the House's footsteps.
“My own view is that dynamic scoring is a riverboat gamble. It's a riverboat gamble because it spends money, cuts taxes on the theory that some revenue may materialize in the future. If it does, fine. If it doesn't, however, you're in a hole,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said at his weekly meeting with reporters.
Shaun Donovan, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, which supplies the administration's estimates of its budget proposals, went further, saying the rule effectively puts the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation in the middle of policy debates because of assumptions they would have to make in scoring bills.
“For example, when a tax cut or spending increase is deficit-financed, its long-term effect on the economy depends heavily on how and when its costs are ultimately recouped—whether through higher taxes or lower spending, and after how large an increase in debt. When the legislation itself is silent on these questions, Congressional scorekeepers would have to make an assumption—potentially putting scorekeepers in the game, rather than just referees,” Donovan wrote.
House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) said the move would make scoring more realistic by having scorekeepers incorporate the feedback on the overall economy of legislation.
“As history has shown and common sense would lead one to believe, laws passed by Congress can have a broad effect on the nation’s economic activity, on job creation and investment decisions. What we are saying is let us take what the experts at CBO and JCT can measure about the real-world impact of policies and incorporate those more realistic assessments into an honest analysis that policymakers can use to make better informed decisions,” he said.
Republican advocates of a tax overhaul have said changing the scoring method will help their cause. Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told the Financial Services Roundtable on Sept. 18, 2014, that “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.”
The change would likely affect only a smattering of bills each Congress, but it could help Republicans claim smaller price tags for some of their priorities, such as a tax overhaul. The rule requires the CBO and the JCT to estimate changes in economic growth, employment, available capital and “other economic variables” for bills that would result in changes of more than one-quarter of a percentage point of gross domestic product in any fiscal year covered under the most recent budget resolution.
According to House Budget Committee Republicans, the quarter-percentage-point threshold would have amounted to about $43 billion, rising to $67 billion by 2024. For the 113th Congress, the rule would have affected only three bills: a catch-all bill of tax breaks (H.R. 4), a bill to make permanent bonus depreciations for businesses (H.R. 4718) and the year-end bill to temporarily extend some tax provisions (H.R. 5771).
However, the rule also allows the chairman of the Budget Committee and the chairman or vice chairman of the JCT to designate bills to be scored dynamically, even if they don't otherwise meet the dollar threshold.
One anti-deficit group, the bipartisan Concord Coalition, said lawmakers should be wary of the method. Bob Bixby, the group's executive director, said in a Jan. 6 blog posting that dynamic scoring is most useful when it shows the range of possible outcomes.
“Attempting to translate all of this into a single score, however, will require CBO and JCT to make a single set of assumptions that could easily be challenged for providing a false sense of precision about a bill’s potential impact on the economy,” Bixby wrote. “Elected officials should be particularly wary of dynamic scoring models that assume deficits will be eliminated by future policy actions. Such assumptions would allow deficit-inducing legislation to appear more benign even though future offsets may never happen.”
The move could also set the stage for the House and Senate to effectively work off of two sets of books when considering legislation that would be affected by the rule change. The House change doesn't affect budget estimates for legislation originating in the Senate, which presumably wouldn't see any scoring changes absent some action.
A spokesman for incoming Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) implied the Senate would simply use the House's scores for tax bills.
“First, revenue bills must originate in the House. If the House has a dynamic scoring rule, the Senate would not need to adopt a separate rule for tax and revenue bills unless it chose to do so,” Enzi spokesman Daniel Head said. “Second, the Senate Budget Committee chair would need to work with his counterpart in the House to develop processes that would implement dynamic scoring of outlays. The Budget Act of 1974 designated Budget Committee chairmen as the official scorekeepers for budgetary matters. They agree to set a set of rules and procedures for scoring processes going forward.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said he was unsure whether a Senate rules change would be needed on dynamic scoring, but was nonetheless optimistic that more usage is coming. “I think we’re going to get dynamic scoring, no matter what,” Hatch said.
“I would like to have both dynamic and static so that you can compare them over the years. That would be probably a good thing. Then you can make— some years one would be better than the other. You never know.”
In addition to the scoring change, the rules package also:
• changed House rules regarding how it considers recommendations made by the Independent Payment Advisory Board;
• continued authorities for legal actions taken by the House on the “Fast and Furious” gun-distribution probe and the Affordable Care Act; and
• increased the number of legislative days that must pass before motions to instruct conferees can be considered on the House floor.
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