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CBO Director Fiercely Adheres to Nonpartisan Course : Budget: Robert D. Reischauer's stand on Clinton's health plan reflects his independence. But he's troubled by his impact on political debate.

February 09, 1994|KAREN TUMULTY and JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — When Congressional Budget Office Director Robert D. Reischauer discovered at a recent hearing that his microphone at the witness table would not work, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) offered him one of the seats reserved for senators--on the Democratic side of the room.

Before accepting, Reischauer hesitated, looked over at the Republican side of the committee and said: "I could sit at an empty seat over there, too."

Such is the zealousness with which the CBO director, a 53-year-old bureaucrat who is scarcely known outside of Washington, maintains the reputation of his office for political independence and--as a result--for credibility.

Although the Congress that hired him is run by Democrats--and he is one himself--Reischauer has won wide praise for steering a nonpartisan course through the treacherous political jungle of budgetary forecasts, projections and estimates.

Yet never was he or his 220-person staff put to so difficult a test as the one they completed Tuesday, when he presented the CBO analysis of President Clinton's health care plan.

With its declaration that the proposal is a massive new government program--not a modification of the current private-sector system of providing health care, as Clinton and his allies portrayed it--the CBO has delivered a serious blow to the biggest domestic initiative of this presidency.

One senior Democratic Senate aide described Reischauer's stand as "stunning bravery" in the face of an intense lobbying campaign from all sides.

"This is unprecedented to have a faceless bureaucrat shoot down the biggest piece of legislation a President has ever presented," the staffer declared. "The easiest thing in the world would have been to go along with the Administration."

Added an admiring Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee: "He called it as he saw it, knowing full well that it would not bring him credit and adulation from many quarters."

Indeed, the blistering criticism began even before Reischauer completed his report. "This is nuts that a bunch of budget wonks would try to turn a serious national debate over health care into a scholastic argument over budgetary rules," one White House aide fumed as the thrust of the CBO conclusions became known around Washington.

However dramatic Tuesday's testimony was, it was not the first time that a CBO estimate has served to deflate the promises of Clinton and his recent predecessors. Last year, its contention that the Administration's hastily prepared deficit-reduction plan had fallen short sent lawmakers scrambling for an additional $67 billion in spending cuts over five years.

But when the news from CBO is good, it carries just as much weight. Clinton has exulted in recent weeks over CBO's forecast that the deficit would fall an additional $124 billion by 1996, in part as a result of his economic program.

CBO itself is relatively new, born in the post-Watergate era of mistrust between Capitol Hill and the White House. Until its establishment in 1975, Congress had to rely on numbers generated by the White House's openly partisan Office of Management and Budget--putting lawmakers at a distinct disadvantage in the knowledge-is-power equation.

From the start, CBO's numbers proved an enormously potent weapon. It single-handedly killed former President Jimmy Carter's welfare reform proposal in 1977 with its estimate that the plan would cost $17 billion--more than triple what the Carter White House had advertised.

And during the 1980s, CBO was constantly locked in battle with the Ronald Reagan Administration budget office over rosy Pentagon spending estimates and other projections aimed at selling the GOP agenda.

Although CBO's forecasts were often wide of the mark, they proved consistently better than those of the White House.

Reischauer was a part of CBO at the beginning, having been recruited by its first director, Alice Rivlin, who is now a top budget official in the Administration. He left the office in 1981 to become senior vice president of the liberal Urban Institute, and then joined the Brookings Institution's economic studies program.

He returned to CBO as director five years ago. A gangly man with a low-key manner, he shuns the city's power-lunch scene, generally eating his at his desk.

As a young man, Reischauer worked in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, and two decades later advised the campaign of 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis.

One friend and former colleague--a Republican--says that Reischauer has shed his youthful illusions that "an activist government can do no wrong, and began over the years to know the limitations and the strengths and the weaknesses of government."

Yet the friend also added that the CBO director feels very strongly that the health care system must undergo dramatic reform. "I know he's been torn on this from the beginning," he added. "This is a real tough one for him."

As Reischauer began his testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, it was clear that he was burdened by the knowledge that the figures generated by his office--the cold, analytical message of his numbers--would inevitably become distorted as they take their place in a political debate that he likened to "mud wrestling."

"I have appeared before Congress more than 100 times, and I've always started by saying how pleased I was to be here," he told the panel. "I did not say that today, because I have a great sense of foreboding about how this report and my words will be used."

When Reischauer finished, both Democrats and Republican applauded him, but it was already clear that his numbers and conclusions--objective as they may be--will inevitably be swept into the partisan struggle.

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