What the PBO's mandate actually says

A refresher, kindly brought to you by Stephen Gordon

Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page waits to testify before the Commons government operations committee in Ottawa February 1, 2011. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

There has always been a fundamental imbalance in public policy debates. On the one hand, the government of the day has access to the collective expertise of the public service, on the other hand, ordinary MPs have access to whatever expertise their minuscule research budgets can buy. It’s very easy for a governing party advised by competent professionals to win a reputation for competent professionalism, and very hard for an opposition party advised by amateurs to shake off a reputation for amateurism. (Yes, I know that the people who advise opposition parties are dedicated to their jobs and work very hard at them. That’s not the point.)

Hence the idea of the Office of Parliamentary Budget Officer (OPBO — I’m adopting Kevin Milligan’s usage of OPBO to denote the office, and PBO for the incumbent), modeled on the U.S.’ Congressional Budget Office (CBO). As in Canada, the economists in the U.S. public service are part of the executive branch; the role of the CBO is to provide professional economic policy evaluations to members of Congress. In the U.S., it has become common practice to run policy proposals through the “reality check” service that is the CBO.

The OPBO has yet to establish itself in the way the CBO has, and it has faced an uphill battle from the start. First, too much of the OPBO’s energy has been spent battling the government over access to information. Second, even when it has access to data, the OPBO has to work with a skeletal staff: in addition to PBO Kevin Page, the OPBO consists of two administrative people, two interns and a grand total of twelve analysts. In comparison, the CBO employs some 235 people. This difference cannot be dismissed by pointing to the larger size of the U.S. economy and its government: policy analysis scales. It takes roughly the same amount of work to evaluate a given policy initiative in the U.S. as it would in Canada. And if that wasn’t enough, the impending departure of Kevin Page — who managed to put together a staff capable of producing an impressive quantity of high-quality work despite these constraints — looks to be an existential crisis for the institution.

But the greatest danger to the establishment of an effective OPBO is a great confusion — on the part of both its supporters and its critics — over what the OPBO’s role is supposed to be.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, for one, offered up this puzzling take just a few days ago:

The idea was that the parliamentary budget officer would kind of work like the congressional budget officer in the United States to report to the elected people in the House of Commons about how the government was doing in its budgeting, sort of being a sounding board, a testing board.

This is clearly wrong: the “P” in PBO stands for “Parliamentary.” For the record, here is the PBO’s mandate, as spelled out in the Parliament of Canada Act:

79.2 The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to

(a) provide independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy;

(b) when requested to do so by any of the following committees, undertake research for that committee into the nation’s finances and economy:

(i) the Standing Committee on National Finance of the Senate or, in the event that there is not a Standing Committee on National Finance, the appropriate committee of the Senate,

(ii) the Standing Committee on Finance of the House of Commons or, in the event that there is not a Standing Committee on Finance, the appropriate committee of the House of Commons, or

(iii) the Standing Committee on Public Accounts of the House of Commons or, in the event that there is not a Standing Committee on Public Accounts, the appropriate committee of the House of Commons;

(c) when requested to do so by a committee of the Senate or of the House of Commons, or a committee of both Houses, that is mandated to consider the estimates of the government, undertake research for that committee into those estimates; and

(d) when requested to do so by a member of either House or by a committee of the Senate or of the House of Commons, or a committee of both Houses, estimate the financial cost of any proposal that relates to a matter over which Parliament has jurisdiction.

2006, c. 9, s. 116. 

There’s nothing in there about being a “sounding board” for the government. The ruling party already has enormous intellectual resources at its fingertips: it doesn’t need to bounce ideas off the OPBO.

On the the other hand, the OPBO wasn’t set up simply to fact-check the government. It was also intended to provide parliamentarians with the intellectual resources they need to develop well-thought-out policy proposals — another service the U.S.’s CBO provides. Little, though, has been heard from the OPBO on this count: its resources are limited and it simply hasn’t been able to make its way down to item d).

In general, it’s hard to argue that the OPBO has overstepped its responsibilities when it hasn’t had the time or resources to cover the mandate it has. And contra Philip Cross, there is little evidence that the OPBO has fallen into the “trap of reflexively taking the opposite side from the government on every issue”: in many instances where the two sides have differed — for example, on the existence of  a structural deficit — the OPBO has turned out to have been right to disagree with the government’s position. Nor is it clear that opposition to the government is reflexive or ingrained: the current OPBO projection for the federal government’s budgetary balance is very similar to that of the government.

Still, the fact that the OPBO hasn’t been able to take care of point d) in its mandate is a problem. Non-stop bickering with the government makes it increasingly difficult to maintain the perception that the OPBO is non-partisan, and makes it increasingly easy for the government to portray it as just another tool of the opposition.

The obvious solution would be for the government to simply let the OPBO have the data and staff it needs to do its job properly. But I don’t see this happening any time soon: the OPBO has become too much of a political lightning rod.

So I have a more modest proposal, but one that might help restore the OPBO to the role for which it was originally intended: make it standard practice for the OPBO to cost electoral platforms. There are several reasons why this is a good idea:

  1. Putting both opposition and government proposals through the OPBO’s costing process will make it easier to remember that the OPBO is non-partisan.
  2. Knowing that the OPBO will be examining the proposals will oblige all parties to step up their games.

The Australian PBO already offers this service. (Do click on that link, if only to see the delightfully precise questionnaire that has to be filled out before the Australian PBO starts work.)

One of the advantages of having a fixed election date is that all parties know when their program will be revealed, so they can manage their time with a certain amount of confidence. These extra responsibilities will require extra resources, but as Maclean’s Paul Wells notes, it’s hard to think of a federal budget line item that offers more value for  money.

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