Throughout the debate on health care this year, politicians on both sides have depended on the Congressional Budget Office to serve as an impartial umpire to provide the facts and figures on the changes each bill might cause.

Created in 1974, the nonpartisan agency has issued scores of reports annually that analyze issues related to the budget and the economy to help lawmakers shape policy.

But now some claim the CBO is either taking sides or just plain botching the job.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, voted last month to protect the CBO from a conservative assault in the House, but a secret recording last week shows the agency may not be able to count on that support in the future.

In a recording obtained by the Maine People’s Alliance of a closed-door Poliquin address to Maine Heritage Policy Center supporters in Bangor, the congressman lashed out at the the job done by CBO.

Republicans have been critical of the agency since it “scored” or analyzed the health care bill passed by the House in May as likely to lead to 23 million fewer insured Americans by 2026, compared to leaving things as is. It rated nearly as harshly the measures eyed in June by the Senate, all of which failed to pass.

Poliquin, who is seeking a third term in 2018, told the Bangor group he spoke six weeks ago with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who remains an influential GOP leader, about the CBO’s estimates.

Poliquin said the ex-speaker told him, “Bruce what we need to do is drop a bill that folks can get behind to replace the CBO with private enterprise, private consultant firms that we hire to do real studies.”

Poliquin then expressed support for the idea in concept, but insisted the timing isn’t right.

“Here’s the problem: Right now, where we stand on the ground now, the last thing we want to do is shoot the referee,” Poliquin told the gathering, which evidently had many CBO skeptics present.

“I hear you, I’m with you completely and I bet everyone else in this room is. The question is: When do we do that?” Poliquin said.

The congressman explained that when the House or Senate consider a major bill, the CBO scores it. He claimed its analysts look at each measure only as a “cash in, cash out” proposition, a static way to view policy changes.

For instance, Poliquin said, “if you’re cutting taxes, you’re receiving less revenue,” so the CBO would simply say that the bill “adds to the deficit” without considering that putting more money in people’s pockets could also have an impact.

“Does it add to growth? Does it mean people will invest more and grow more and more jobs and more money and therefore there’s more tax revenue coming in? And that’s what they should score and they don’t do that,” Poliquin said.

On the health care bill, which President Donald Trump called “mean” and is seen by Democrats as an albatross around Poliquin’s neck, the congressman said the CBO looked at it the wrong way.

With the bill coming up, he said, it determined that 23 million additional people would be without insurance if it passed.

“Well let’s think about this,” he said. “Half of those people were forced to buy insurance or pay a fine” to the Internal Revenue Service.

“I guess if you don’t force them to do that, they might not choose to have that insurance. That’s the stupidest thing, that they score that way,” Poliquin said.

Poliquin, though, was wrong about the CBO’s scoring method.

In 2015, the Republican-controlled Congress changed the rules to require CBO analysts to “incorporate behavioral responses” to policy changes instead of looking solely at conventional cost estimates. Since then, the impact of people’s response to policy shifts is supposed to be included in figuring out the savings or costs associated with proposals that legislators are eyeing.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, assailed the effort by some Republicans to rip apart the CBO during a recent floor debate in the House.

“As students, we would all like to grade our own papers, but we can’t do that in Congress. We have to have somebody impartial who will grade them for us and tell us what this means to our budget and to the American people,” he said.

Yarmuth said the CBO “does not exist to give us the information that we want to hear. Its job is to give us the information that we need to make informed, responsible decisions.”

“It is beneath the Congress to attack the CBO, which is only doing its job,” Yarmuth said. “It should be embarrassing to my Republican colleagues that they are launching these attacks simply because they do not have the courage to defend the damaging effects of their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, called the effort to gut the CBO “the equivalent of ‘Let’s beat up the referee after we don’t like the outcome of the soccer game.’”

Brent Littlefield, Poliquin’s political adviser, said Monday that while the congressman “may support efforts to ensure a full picture is understood from proposed legislation, Poliquin said, and believes, Congress should receive analysis on proposed bills.” 

When it came to a vote on whether to ax the CBO’s budget analysis division — and its 89 employees — Poliquin voted with the Democrats and about half the Republicans to preserve the CBO as it is. Twice this year, Littlefield said, Poliquin’s votes have sided with the CBO.

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U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, speaks at an event at the new L.L. Bean manufacturing center in Lewiston on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017.
AP

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