Democrats will be pointing to this preliminary CBO score as if it is engraved on stone tablets. Republicans will proclaim their respect for the CBO and proceed to argue that its estimates should not be taken too seriously in this instance. This may come as a surprise, but I think the Republican argument is closer to correct. To crow, as did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that the package is "a triumph for the American people in terms of deficit reduction" is premature at best, delusional at worst.
That's none other than Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus -- no conservative acolyte she -- in an op-ed today entitled in the print edition, "Score one for skepticism."
As Marcus went on to explain, the central flaw in taking the CBO numbers as the gospel truth is that (emphasis mine):
The CBO is required to assume that Congress will do what it promises. So, for example, Congress promises in the measure to cut several hundred billion dollars in Medicare spending. Sometimes such promises have come to pass. Other times, as in the current difficulty with scheduled cuts in Medicare reimbursements for doctors, they are put off because of a public -- or politically connected -- outcry.
This stands in marked contrast with how others in the media, such as CBS "Evening News" anchor Katie Couric's gleefully pounced on and misrepresented the CBO projections (emphasis below that of NB editor-at-large Brent Baker):
“The price tag certified,” Couric trumpeted in teasing the CBS Evening News before leading with how the CBO “put out a report that may help win over some Democrats,” reciting: “It says the plan, which would cost $940 billion over 10 years, would reduce the deficit over that same period by $138 billion.” She then cited a claim CBO didn't make: “It would cut the deficit over 20 years by more than $1 trillion.”
Cordes pegged $1.3 trillion as “the amount by which the final health care bill would reduce the deficit over the next 20 years,” bucking up the CBO's credibility: “That's according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, which is trusted by both parties as the authority on budget matters.”
The $1.3 trillion number, however, is not in CBO's report (PDF). Robert VerBruggen noted on National Review Online's “The Corner” that the 20-year estimate “is nowhere to be found in the CBO report itself. It seems that the Democrats took the CBO’s estimate that deficit reduction could fall 'in a broad range around one-half percent of GDP,' matched it up to some estimates of GDP in 2020–2029, and attributed their back-of-the-envelope math to the CBO itself. I e-mailed a source within the CBO to ask if they had arrived at the $1.2 trillion figure themselves. The source e-mailed back one word: 'No.'”
ABC and NBC also cited the CBO's estimates, but didn't lead with them or match CBS's enthusiasm for championing them and the CBO's authority.
Unmentioned by CBS, how the CBO can only go by what congressional leaders say they will do. In this case, that includes cutting $500 billion from Medicare over the next ten years, cuts few think will ever really occur, to say nothing of how every entitlement program takes on a life of its own which leads to soaring costs well beyond the initial estimates.