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Fudging the Facts on Health Care and Deficits

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Facts always matter, but never more so than when politicians deal with issues of real consequence, like health care and budget deficits.

Data sets and out-year projections may make everybody's eyes glaze over, but without accurate information, the end result of legislation is disaster. Today, there is no way to avoid fiscal ruin and social erosion unless we can determine whether health care reform will tame or swell deficits.

Yet the Republican leaders in Congress are now insisting on their own "facts" concerning health care and deficits, which directly contradict the careful studies of the Congressional Budget Office. They have gone so far as to denigrate CBO, among the most respected agencies in Washington since its founding in 1974, by accusing its analysts of using "rigged" assumptions to reach its conclusions.

Why? The agency's conclusions are irritating to the Republicans, especially Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, because the CBO found that health care reform will reduce the federal deficit by more than $230 billion during the first decade after it goes into effect -- and then by trillions of dollars in the decades that follow.

For many Americans worried by the growing deficit, that particular aspect of health care reform was no doubt obscured by all the faked uproar over "death panels."

Now, however, with the question of deficit reduction hanging over the new Congress, the Republicans feel obliged to address the fiscal impact of their drive to repeal, defund and destroy health care reform. They've chosen to do so by issuing their own 19-page rebuttal of the CBO analysis, filled with accusations about budgetary "gimmicks," "double-counting" of revenue and omission of major costs -- and the use of "biased" assumptions imposed on the agency's analysts by the Democrats who were in control when the bill passed.

But the truth is that Boehner has been around long enough to understand that the CBO's methods are strictly neutral and indeed bipartisan. As Paul N. Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted, in a detailed rebuttal of the attack on CBO, the agency's reality-based analytical procedures were developed during the past three decades by House and Senate Budget committee members and staff, as well as administration officials of both parties.

For the current crop of politicians to disparage them is an insult to those honest efforts and an assault on the foundations of government.

If all that seems too dry, too wonkish, too earnest, then consider this: The present speaker and his cronies know that their partisan attack on the CBO is patently hypocritical. Unless afflicted with early Alzheimer's, they can surely remember that two years ago, the Republicans and other opponents of reform were crowing loudly because the CBO had found that the Senate Finance Committee's health care bill would increase the deficit. Although Democrats grumbled, they accepted the CBO findings and rewrote the bill extensively to ensure that it reduced the deficit, as promised.

Consistency and integrity are important, not only as basic values but because without them, we have no hope of achieving any public objective. Politicians who knowingly seek to promote fraudulent numbers and budgetary smoke cannot be trusted with our medicine or our money.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

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