On Friday, congressional Republicans appointed Keith Hall to become the next director of the Congressional Budget Office. The announcement ended a careful two-month process that involved figuring out how to fill the position with a competent and credible individual, but without giving Democrats ammunition to decry any appointee as a partisan hack.
Hardly anyone dislikes outgoing CBO director Doug Elmendorf, which is no small achievement in this town. He's a well-respected economist and someone who strived to play it down the middle. However, the perception among Republicans was that when push came to shove in the melee over the Affordable Care Act, he caved and gave the Democrats what they wanted, a score that allowed Nancy Pelosi to state with a straight face that Obamacare represented the biggest deficit reduction legislation in the history of Congress, a grotesque absurdity if there ever was one. That's what precluded Elmendorf's reappointment more than anything else.
Hall meets the mockable standards of Peter Orszag and Paul Krugman that the next CBO director be a respected academic who's not part of any cabal. He ran BLS for a few years, did a fine job, and was extremely well-liked by the staff, despite their inherent Democratic leanings. He eschewed the Hill or a consulting firm after Obama took over, and instead decamped to the Mercatus Center, a relatively low-profile think tank in Virginia, which I take as an indication of his dedication to his discipline.
The main issue, as one aspirant of the job explained to me earlier this week, isn't just in the power of the CBO director to abet dynamic scoring but more in his ability to make other appointments at the office. The directors of the various divisions--budget, macroeconomic analysis, tax, and health care in particular--have great power, and it can be difficult for a director to overrule them. Putting in a reliable partisan--which has been done many times before--can make life quite difficult for the other party for many years after a partisan director has departed.
Hall has been in this milieu long enough that he knows who he can trust to do a "just the facts" analysis and who's likely to work with the Democratic staff on the sly to help them get what they need, when they need it. It's something many of the other candidates--especially the beyond-the-beltway economists--couldn't be relied on to do.
Tax reform will sink or swim on its own, regardless of the CBO director and whatever form of dynamic scoring that is ultimately adopted, but it will be difficult for Democrats to accuse Keith Hall of being a partisan hack and getting away with it when he says something they don't agree with. At the same time he's reasonable enough to expect that he'll say things that will displease Republicans as well from time to time.
Republicans could have done a lot worse.