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Fact Check: Trump administration may question, but CBO seen as generally impartial

President Donald Trump’s spokesman on Wednesday deflected concerns that the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act had yet to be scored by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office by questioning the agency’s track record.

“If you’re looking at the CBO for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. “I mean, they were way, way off the last time in every aspect of how they scored and projected Obamacare.”

“If you look at the number of people that they projected that would be on Obamacare, they are off by millions,” he added. “But, the idea that that is any kind of authority based on the track record that occurred last time is a little far-fetched.”

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Spicer has a point that the CBO’s projections for how many people would gain insurance under the health care law were “off by millions.” But imprecision in Affordable Care Act projections does not give an accurate impression of the CBO’s overall track record.

— The CBO’s predictions were off, but less so than others’.

The Congressional Budget Office, created in 1974, released its analysis of the completed version of the health care law in March 2010. It estimated 21 million people would be enrolled in public marketplaces by 2016. The year ended with 11.5 million enrollees.

But according to a 2015 report from the Commonwealth Fund, a health care research group, the CBO’s projections for the Affordable Care Act were more in line with what actually happened than four other prominent analyses from 2010.

“Nobody always gets this stuff right,” said Sherry Glied, a health policy expert and the primary author of the report. “But if you believe it’s possible to make an assessment, they’re the best at that.”

The CBO also updates its figures to reflect new policies and economic conditions. The number of employers dropping coverage and pushing employees to public exchanges was far fewer than the CBO anticipated, leading the agency to reduce its enrollment estimate from 21 million to 13 million in January 2016.

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— Overall, CBO forecasts have been more accurate

Forecasts are difficult, but outside of the health care law, the CBO’s projections have landed closer to reality.

For example, the agency estimated that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would cost $106 billion at the end of fiscal 2009, 1 percent lower than the actual cost of $108 billion. And its prediction for the recovery act’s impact on the federal deficit, an increase of $4.7 billion by the end of fiscal 2015, was also near the actual impact of $5 billion.

In the CBO’s assessment of its own accuracy, the agency says it has overestimated revenue by an average of 1.1 percent for two-year projections and by 5.3 percent for six-year projections since 1982.

Similarly, the CBO concluded that its economic forecasts of the past four decades “have been comparable in quality to those of the administration and the Blue Chip consensus,” which aggregates analyses from the private sector.

Independent analysis of the CBO’s forecasting tends to be even more generous, concluding it is not biased (though perhaps optimistic) and citing the agency as the most accurate of federal analysts.

— The forecasts have delighted and frustrated both the left and right.

Complaining about the referee is not a new tactic, and while the CBO is certainly no stranger to criticism, it has retained a reputation for objectivity.

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“All projections about the future are wrong. To me, the question isn’t about accuracy, it’s about bias. The CBO’s role is to try to offer unbiased estimates,” said Philip Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Congressional Budget Office: Honest Numbers, Power, and Policymaking.”

After all, Joyce said, the CBO’s past imprecision doesn’t mean its projections of the health care repeal bill will be less accurate than analysis from the administration or its supporters.

Before the CBO existed, estimates of the impact of legislation came from those trying to sell it, but the agency’s creation has instilled a culture of fairness in government forecasting. When political appointees attempt to sway the Office of Management and Budget toward more favorable analyses, career officials would hold up the CBO as a deterrent, according to Joyce.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped politicians from impugning the agency when it produces an unfavorable projection. When the CBO questioned the Reagan administration’s analysis of its tax cuts, President Ronald Reagan hit back, calling the agency’s numbers “phony.” On the other side, Republicans seized upon the CBO analysis of President Bill Clinton’s health care plan that led to its ultimate demise in Congress.

“It’s a bipartisan wet blanket,” Glied said.

Spicer himself has cited the CBO throughout the years, characterizing it on Twitter in January as a neutral arbiter: “Bill gutting #ObamaCare would save half-trillion over a decade, CBO finds.”

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What is unusual about Spicer’s criticism, said Joyce, is that it came before the CBO wrapped up its analysis. The pre-emptive strike suggests the administration does not anticipate a rosy forecast.

For a president who has cast doubt on the official unemployment numbers and claims without evidence that his predecessor spied on him, this is perhaps particularly concerning.

“We desperately need neutral truth-tellers and fair scorekeepers. CBO is one that we have,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “People shouldn’t mess with CBO.”