Here's What A CBO Score Even Means

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Today, the Congressional Budget Office released its score for the Senate Republican's Obamacare repeal bill. (Spoiler alert: It was not great.) But what does a CBO score mean, anyway? This government agency wields a lot of power when it comes to getting legislation passed.

The CBO is a nonpartisan government agency that was founded in 1975. It is tasked with producing independent analysis of legislative issues that affect the government's budget. It produces thousands of reports annually to provide lawmakers and the public with the information they need to make informed decisions about pending legislation.

The "scores" the CBO doles out are not on a number or letter scale; there's no CBO exam to ace or fail. Rather, the agency provides cost estimates for proposed legislation, simply laying out the projected financial effects of the bill. The cost estimates compare the spending and revenue projections under the current law to how they would change if the proposed law was enacted.

The CBO does not make policy recommendations, as it is is committed to objectivity. Rather, it shows the probable real-world — and real-dollar — impact of legislation proposed by Congress.

So why is a CBO score such an anticipated and quoted report, especially when it comes to controversial legislation? The most basic goal of these reports is to provide lawmakers with information about the budgetary consequences of legislation, so that when they are considering their vote, they know how the bill will affect the government's budget and its financial goals.

But lawmakers are not the only ones paying attention to these reports. And when dealing with particularly controversial legislation, even though the CBO is nonpartisan, its reports become cannon fodder for both sides to either support or denounce proposed bills. In the case of the Obamacare repeal bill, Senate GOP leadership is saying that it is the best course of action, but the CBO report says that 32 million people will lose their coverage by 2026 and that premiums will double, so lawmakers have had a difficult time reconciling their support for the bill when confronted with those numbers.

So how accurate are these reports, anyway? This has been a criticism of the agency by President Trump. The CBO scores for the Republican health care bills have not been favorable, but the president has tried to spin the narrative by pointing to the CBO's reports from when the Affordable Care Act was moving through Congress. While he is not wrong to say that the CBO's prediction for Obamacare's impact was not 100 percent accurate, it calls for a more nuanced analysis than that.

The CBO overestimated both the cost and the benefits of the ACA, says the Washington Post. The cost of the program was lower than predicted; despite rising premiums being a talking point of the right, premiums have actually stayed lower than expected on average. But the ACA also helped fewer people than the CBO predicted. Some of that can be attributed to the Supreme Court's decision to make the Medicaid expansion optional on the state level, so many people who would have been eligible for that program did not receive health care. But despite criticism through the years from those whom its reports do not benefit, the agency is decidedly nonpartisan, and any errors in computations should not be attributed to political leaning.

So the next time you hear someone talking about a bill's CBO score, listen in, because these stats are what can make or break a legislation's future.