Brent Rathgeber on knowing his role and the PBO

A backbencher who knows what he is here to do

Once more into the Parliamentary Budget Office debate with Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber.

This conflict had to have been or at least ought to have been foreseen following the creation of the PBO. It is simply impracticable that a $260B operation be infallible. With eighty some departments, agencies and Crown Corporations, many operating at arms’ length of the cabinet, budgeting and forecasting errors or at least discrepancies are simply inevitable.

That is the nature of watchdogism. A watchdog will inevitably butt heads with what it is watching.

It is useful that this is acknowledged, particularly without the suggestion that Kevin Page was acting as a partisan by virtue of butting heads with the government. But then Mr. Rathgeber writes something truly remarkable…

It is understandable why the Executive Branch might be insulted when the PBO challenged its numbers; but it remains a mystery why some Members of Parliament were similarly dismissive. After all, the office was created to provide independent analysis to Parliament not advice or criticism to, or cheerleading for, the government.

I understand that Members of Parliament, who are not members of the executive, sometimes think of themselves as part of the government; we are not. Under our system of Responsible Government, the Executive is responsible and accountable to the Legislature. The latter holds the former to account. A disservice is provided to both when Parliament forgets to hold the Cabinet to account.

It’s actually kind of astonishing to see a government backbencher write this. Mr. Rathgeber is entirely correct in his understanding of how Parliament is supposed to work, but, given stuff like this and this, it’s an understanding that doesn’t seem largely shared or prioritized among his fellow government backbenchers—or, rather, it’s an understanding that is regularly trampled by the sorts of displays I’ve recently highlighted.

Parliament was established in 1236 and King John had to submit his request for increased taxes to it. But the Budgetary process is much more complex almost 800 years later. As a Member of Parliament, I simply lack the resources and expertise to adequately fulfill the role of providing budgetary oversight.

Accordingly, Members of Parliament need the expertise and resources of an office like the PBO to properly scrutinize how the executive spends the taxes Parliament provides it.

This is basically exactly what Mr. Page said to this magazine two years ago—the quote that seemed to convince Philip Cross that Mr. Page misunderstood his mandate.

The United States, having created its Congressional Budget Office in 1974, is slightly more advanced in how the CBO assists in Congressional Oversight.  Firstly, the Director of the CBO is appointed jointly by the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate.   Our Parliamentary Budget Officer is appointed by the Governor General in Council.  This is an important distinction compromising the independence of the PBO.  The second important distinction is the name of the organization’s head.  The CBO is headed by a director, the emphasis therefore on the Office rather than the office holder.  Parliament, however, created a Parliamentary Budget Officer, with the necessary implication that the Office exists to support the Officer. Has anybody ever heard of Douglas W. Elmendorf, Director of the Congressional Budget Office since January 2009??

Well, probably relatively few people in Canada have heard of Douglas W. Elmendorf, but American legislators are likely well aware of who he is. Mr. Elmendorf has his own Times Topics page, so he’s not quite a mystery.

But the more important distinctions, in my view, between the CBO and the PBO is in how they choose to report their findings.  Whereas the current PBO is fond of issuing press releases and holding press conferences, the CBO’s policy is to deliver its reports simultaneously to all interested Members of Congress and their staffs.  After delivery to Congress, the CBO posts its work on its website for the public to see.  Moreover, the CBO does not provide policy advice, support or criticism; it provides only objective analysis.

I think those concerned with Mr. Page’s tenure need to be more specific in this regard. Where precisely has he overstepped his bounds? When exactly has he offered policy advice that he shouldn’t have? How precisely has he done or said something that his American or Australian counterparts have never done or said? Let’s see examples and quotes and comparisons.

(Further, if the expectation is that the PBO should be more demure, does it not follow that the government should be equally well-mannered in its responses to the PBO’s work?)

Mr. Elmendorf isn’t quite an unseen, unheard entity—here are the results of a search through CSPAN’s archive for his name. On Tuesday he gave an hour-long news conference—the use of the term “annual” leads me to believe he does this only once a year. For the sake of comparison, here is the video of that news conference.