Costing legislation

2010-07-26

in Canada, Economics, Law, Politics

In the United States, the Congressional Budget Office has a mandate to provide non-partisan advice on the economic and budgetary decisions on the wide array of programs covered by the federal budget. They have a staff of 235, and a budget of $44 million per year.

By contrast, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) has a staff of 11, and can only undertake analyses on a selected subset of bills. This is problematic for a few reasons. For one, it gives the impression of some level of partisanship, when the PBO can choose which bills to study and when to release results. For another, it leaves Members of Parliament ill informed about what the costs associated with legislation will be. They really ought to have an accurate non-partisan analysis before the second reading vote.

Perhaps it would make sense if Canada enlarged the role of the PBO, to include a mandatory analysis on any piece of legislation likely to cost over a certain amount, such as $500 million. By making the selection of projects for analysis largely automatic, the PBO would be made to seem non-partisan. The quality of the data that drives Parliamentary decisions would also likely be improved.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 26, 2010 at 10:45 am
R.K. July 26, 2010 at 11:59 am

Does the American CBO do costing on all pieces of legislation?

. September 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm

C. Scott Clark and Peter DeVries
A sad farewell to the parliamentary budget officer

Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has announced that he will not seek reappointment in 2013. This will end an experiment in “transparency and accountability” that was doomed from the beginning. Since its creation, the PBO has been in a constant battle with the federal government over his independence, inadequate budget and lack of staff.

This is ironic, given that it was the Conservatives who promoted an independent PBO during the 2006 election campaign. But after two years, no one should be surprised, given the Harper government’s dislike of independent research and opposing opinion. When it confronts disagreement with its preconceived views, and facts that don’t support these views, its modus operandi is simply to get rid of the source of disagreement and to ignore the facts

This was not always the case. Liberal and Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s wanted their public servants to provide their best advice, regardless of whether they disagreed with the government; they wanted policy options costed; and, they were even willing to defend research in public. There was no need for a PBO. Regrettably, evidenced-based policy decisions are becoming increasingly scarce and this is unlikely to change soon.

Since 2008, the Parliamentary Budget Office has prepared five economic and fiscal updates and more than 20 research reports. It has also provided assessments of cost estimates of policy initiatives proposed in legislation. Mr. Page has appeared before both House and Senate committees on eight occasions in three years, more than most deputy ministers, let alone ministers. He has done all this with a staff of only 11 and a budget of only $2.8-million. Currently, he has a staff of nine. Mr. Page has publicly defended the Parliamentary Budget Office research and policy conclusions, something that has no doubt made him very unpopular with the government.

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