The Super Committee's official deadline for a deficit deal is technically on Wednesday, but because of the necessary behind-the-scenes work at the Congressional Budget Office, the real deadline is Monday at midnight. Through the weekend, CBO officials were working extended hours to prepare the non-partisan agency to score any type of last-minute deal between Democrats and Republicans be it $1.2 trillion proposal or something akin to the $643 billion offer floated by Republicans on Friday. But all of that effort looks like it's all for naught as the Democratic and Republican co-chairs are looking to draft a joint statement declaring defeat.
The 2011 Budget Control Act that created the Super Committee required any proposal to be scored by the CBO and made public 48 hours ahead of a final vote. As the committee's Republican co-chair Jeb Hensarling said on Fox News Sunday, that gives the committee 15 hours from now to act. "It has to be estimated by the Congressional Budget Office by the end of Monday. So, it's a daunting challenge, no doubt about it."
You know what's also daunting? Scoring a proposal ranging from billions of dollars to trillions of dollars between Monday night and Wednesday morning. To get a sense of this last-minute scoring process, we spoke with two officials at the CBO about what goes into calculating a proposal of this magnitude. Here's the minute-by-minute workflow:
Step 1: Carve up the proposal If a deal were reached, as soon as the Super Committee submits the proposal to the CBO, the proposal goes to the agency's Budget Analysis division where it's carved up into smaller pieces that are assigned to analysts within the division's five cost-counting units (defense, international affairs and veterans' affairs; income security and education; health systems and Medicare; low-income health programs and prescription drugs; and natural and physical resources). Nearly the entire task of scoring the bill is carried out by the Budget Analysis division, which looks small (the red rectangle on the right) but actually employs about one-third of the CBO's entire staff. For big bills likes this, there will be 20 to 30 analysts estimating various aspects of the proposal.
Step 2: Analyze the proposal Once the proposal is carved up, the analysts begin pouring over its specific language extremely carefully. While the public was largely kept in the dark about what the Super Committee had been considering, it isn't usually a total surprise when it arrives on an analyst's desk. For weeks, committee members have been transmitting proposals to the CBO to score. Still, in some cases, tiny changes are made by members of Congress in the final proposal that CBO staffers aren't expecting. In a trillion dollar bill, those tweaks can mean billions of dollars—so it's important the analysts catch them.
If changes have been made, analysts must adjust the cost estimate. Sometimes it's just a matter of plugging a different number into an Excel spreadsheet—a task that takes minutes. In other cases, a very complicated model may take hours to run through a computer. That takes care of the spending. But what if the proposal messes with the federal tax system?
Step 3: Calculate taxes The tax provisions in the proposal are not scored by the CBO, which only deals with spending. That job goes to the Joint Committee on Taxation, a non-partisan agency in the legislative branch, which has been receiving tax proposals from members of the Super Committee for weeks if not months. When JCT is done scoring the tax portion of the proposal, they ship it out to CBO.
Step 4: Condense and review Once the Joint Committee on Taxation is done with their portion, CBO staffers pool all the estimates from JCT and the various CBO analysts together into one table. Before taking the analyst estimates as gospel, a review process begins. Each analyst reports to a unit chief. Those unit chiefs report to the leadership of the Budget Analysis division, which consists of an assistant director for budget analysis and his two deputies. Those deputies review the estimates and check for typographical errors as the data moves up the chain. In the end, all cost estimates that are officially transmitted are reviewed and signed off on by the CBO director or deputy director.
Step 5: Put it all in English If the CBO is completely pressed for time, this step is the first to get axed. In this case, CBO presents a table with numbers and a short summary and calls it a night. But in most cases, they provide a detailed description of the proposal and how they went about making the estimates. The budget analysts are assigned with drafting the evaluations, which are then proof-read and edited for clarity and accuracy by the leadership of the Budget Analysis division with final approval given by either the CBO director or deputy director. The evaluation is then made public and posted on the CBO's website.
Phew! They're done. When asked if the agency breaks into celebration after the Herculean effort, a CBO official characterized it more as a sort of collective sigh of relief, saying a restful Thanksgiving weekend would suffice for the federal employees.