With their selection of Keith Hall to direct the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the incoming chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Dr. Tom Price and Senator Mike Enzi, have passed an unusually rigorous test. Their choice should be expected to not only well serve lawmakers, but also reflect well upon Congress, in the years ahead.
The end of previous director Doug Elmendorf’s term fostered a dynamic unseen with previous CBO director appointments. Some commentators attempted to discredit any choice the budget chairmen might make unless they took the highly unusual step of reappointing the other party’s outgoing choice. Much of this pressure was applied well before Senator Enzi was even installed as Senate Budget Committee chairman. Though CBO under Elmendorf served Congress extremely well, the dynamic was unfair in the sense that it raised the bar for the next appointment higher than was ever previously the case.
Despite this heightened standard, the selection of Keith Hall nevertheless cleared it easily. The chairmen needed to find someone with impeccable academic credentials, and they did (Hall not only has his economics PhD from Purdue, but also served as chief economist for the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA)). They needed to find someone with the demonstrated ability to manage CBO, and they did (Hall previously ran the Bureau of Labor Statistics). They needed someone manifestly even-tempered and evidence-driven, and they got that in spades. Hall will quickly come to be recognized more widely as the soft-spoken and objective analyst his associates already know him to be. He has been particularly good as a witness delivering congressional testimony, where his “just the facts” style suits what Congress needs from CBO.
The selection of Hall provides other ancillary benefits which may or may not have played a role in his selection. His research emphasis has been on labor economics. This expertise will serve CBO well, as the agency will almost certainly need to increase its attention to labor market analysis in the years ahead. It is rapidly becoming apparent that the United States faces enormous challenges with respect to maintaining labor supply as more baby boomers reach their 60s. It is equally apparent that much of federal law, from retirement policy to disability policy to health insurance subsidies, is poorly designed in the sense of fostering labor market distortions. Policy makers will need to wrestle with these problems in the years ahead, and CBO will be pulled into many such questions. In this context it is a significant advantage that CBO has an esteemed labor economist at its helm.
I have had the pleasure of working with Keith Hall first at the White House, where he was chief economist for CEA, and later at the Mercatus Center. He has long been a reliable source of objective information for decision-makers in both the executive and legislative branches. He is fairly described as highly intelligent, well informed, collegial, and unflappable. If a member of Congress’s temperature rises, Hall’s will stay the same. I would not be surprised if he becomes increasingly known for his succinct reserve; I have been joking to friends that CBO’s pronouncements may no longer require abridging to circulate via twitter.
Of course, like all CBO directors, Hall will need to further develop important skills in his new position. A CBO director must be a diplomat as well as an analyst; he must explain CBO’s decisions to the press and public and must quickly master the nuances of the various ways members of Congress will, as it were, “work the referee.” But Hall will have a relatively free hand to develop these communications skills because he is already in firm possession of the essential analytical and managerial skills required for the job.
The choice of a new CBO director was both a challenge and an opportunity for the incoming budget committee chairmen, to demonstrate a commitment to professional, responsible governance. They have done so with the selection of Keith Hall.