The wrong way and the right way to improve the PBO

What do we need from a Parliamentary Budget Office? More

Content image

Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber offers his thoughts on the future of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

“The office has strayed from its intended mandate which was to provide non-partisan, independent advice. The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the office has become part of the opposition’s research branch. I don’t think that was the intent, but it just evolved,” said Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton-St. Alberta, Alta.). 

We need to be specific here. Mr. Rathgeber isn’t quite making the accusation that Kevin Page has conducted himself as a partisan, but he isn’t quite not making the accusation. Again, being critical of the government is not synonymous with partisanship. If the suggestion is that Kevin Page conducted himself as a partisan, the evidence to support that claim needs to amount to more than “he was really hard on the government.”

(Mr. Rathgeber alludes to “the perception, rightly or wrongly.” Perception among who? Conservative partisans? Do New Democrat and Liberal partisans differ in their opinion? Do New Democrats and Liberals think instead that Mr. Page has conducted himself in a perfectly non-partisan manner? Does this possibly demonstrate that partisans are not the best people to ask about someone else’s partisanship?)

I suspect the discomfort some have with Mr. Page’s time in office has primarily to do with his willingness to speak openly about the subjects he explored and his willingness to fight for disclosure of the information he felt he should have access to. There’s probably a good conversation to be had about how and when the officers of Parliament should be heard from and their role in a parliamentary democracy. But that discussion is a lot more nuanced than lamenting that Mr. Page wasn’t sufficiently “non-partisan.” Mr. Rathgeber seems to hint at this discussion with another comment: “This position, for whatever reason, has become very, very, public, and I think to its detriment.” I’m not sure I entirely agree, but that’s a more worthwhile discussion to have there.

Mr. Rathgeber said that the office’s high media profile, and the practice of releasing all of its reports publicly has meant that controversy-shy government MPs “almost never” ask the office for research.

“The fact that the data and the information will be released, or could be released publicly, will serve as a deterrent for government members to employ the services of the PBO,” he said…

Mr. Rathgeber said he believes that if the PBO were to release its reports directly to the Parliamentarians who request them, the move would reduce friction between the Parliamentary Budget Office and the government. He added that full officers of Parliament do not have as high a profile as Mr. Page, who serves Parliament through the Library, but that they work effectively. “There has to be some balance between the office’s ability to make reports public and its ability to still maintain non-partisanship. I realize that that’s a struggle and I don’t have a magic bullet,” he said.

If the goal—and apparently the great concern—is a non-partisan PBO, giving partisans more power to determine which of the PBO’s reports are released publicly is probably not the answer. The idea is obviously problematic—We’re going to give MPs the opportunity to withhold reports if they don’t like the findings? We’re going to waste the PBO’s presently precious time and resources on reports that won’t be made public?—but it does segue to a possible compromise.

Here is how the Congressional Budget Office answers the question, “Who can see your work?”

CBO makes its work widely available to the Congress and the public. All of CBO’s products (apart from informal cost estimates for legislation being developed privately by Members of Congress or their staffs) are available to the Congress and the public on CBO’s website. Once a legislative proposal is publicly available, any CBO analysis of that proposal is also publicly available.

The caveat there is important. A Member of Congress can consult the CBO about a legislative proposal they are considering and the CBO’s analysis of that idea will not be made public by the CBO. This would seem to satisfy Jim Flaherty’s request for a “sounding board.”

But here, meanwhile, is everything else the Congressional Budget Office (Mr. Flaherty’s preferred model) does.

CBO’s chief responsibility under the Congressional Budget Act is to help the House and Senate Budget Committees with the matters under their jurisdiction. CBO also supports other Congressional committees—particularly the Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Finance Committees—and the Congressional leadership.

CBO produces a number of reports specified in statute, of which the best known is the annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Other CBO reports that are required by law or have become regular products of the agency owing to a high, sustained level of interest by the Congress are described in our products.

In addition, CBO is required by law to produce a formal cost estimate for nearly every bill that is “reported” (approved) by a full committee of either House of Congress; the only exceptions are appropriation bills, which do not receive formal cost estimates. (CBO provides information on their budgetary impact to the appropriation committees.) CBO also produces formal cost estimates at other stages of the legislative process if requested to do so by a relevant committee or by the Congressional leadership. Moreover, the agency produces informal cost estimates for a much larger number of legislative proposals that Congressional committees consider in the process of developing legislation.

Beyond its regular reports and cost estimates, CBO prepares analytic reports at the request of the Congressional leadership or Chairmen or Ranking Minority Members of committees or subcommittees. CBO analysts work with requesters and their staffs to understand the scope and nature of the work that would be most useful to the Congress.

If we want a Parliamentary Budget Officer that provides full, public analysis of the federal budget, the government’s finances and legislation before Parliament and MPs want to be able to consult privately with the PBO, figure out what amount of staff and resources would be necessary to do so and then provide a sufficient budget. The answer ultimately is not less of a Parliamentary Budget Office, it’s more.