The Parliamentary Budget Officer; Time to Turn the Page

As the tenure of Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer reaches its conclusion, many in the Government and the CPC Caucus are breathing a sigh of relief; my reaction is more measured.  In my view, Mr. Page is a dedicated public servant who tried his best to fulfill the mandate Parliament defined for him.  His projections were correct sometimes; they were less so at others.  In that regard, he is no different than any other economic forecaster—making his best projections based on ever changing variables and imperfect models.

But this blog is not about Mr. Page; too much has already been written about him and his all too public battle with the federal government. The Office is bigger than the man and my interest is in the future of the Parliamentary Budget Office.

The PBO was created in 2006 as part of the “Accountability Act”. It was one of the newly created Independent Oversight Offices, whose mandate was to promote transparency in government.  PBO’s specific mission statement is to “support Parliament in exercising its oversight role in the government’s stewardship of public funds by ensuring budget transparency by promoting informed public dialogue with an aim to implement sound economic and fiscal policies for Canada.”

How can a fiscal conservative possibly be opposed to budget transparency or sound economic and fiscal policies??  The Office’s creation was theoretically a dream for fiscal conservatives; finally, the federal treasury would be forced to treat taxpayers respectfully. Then something strange happened; the PBO issued reports critical of the Government that created it.  With the genie out of the bottle, the resultant dilemma pitted partisans versus puritans.  How dare the PBO challenge a Conservative Government on its budgets or its forecasts??

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 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.

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.  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??

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.

These are not subtle distinctions.  The Congressional Budget Office has an impeccable record for providing critical independent and nonpartisan budgetary advice to Congress.  The tenure of Canada’s first PBO, meanwhile, is mired in controversy and allegations of partisanship.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Let us tweak and improve the operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office so that Parliament might fulfill its oversight obligation as good stewards over the public purse.


1 comment for “The Parliamentary Budget Officer; Time to Turn the Page

  1. Ted Roseman
    February 6, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Excellent analysis. I agree with your recommendations.