A chat with the ‘umpire’

Published 7:46 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2009

President Obama had a little talk last week with the man who shot health care reform.

Depending on your point of view, the president was displaying healthy intellectual curiosity about health care costs when he invited Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf to the White House, or he was engaging in a little Chicago-style politics, putting the arm on an independent analyst who has said — twice — the Democrats’ health care proposals will not produce significant cost savings.

Mr. Elmendorf is a Democratic appointee, but CBO cost estimates on health care reform make it clear he doesn’t take orders from top Democrats in Congress or from President Obama. Some Republicans fear the recent White House meeting was planned as an attitude adjustment for the CBO director. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell captured those concerns with a baseball analogy. “It strikes me as somewhat akin to the owner of the team asking the umpires to come up to the owner’s box,” Sen. McConnell said.

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It’s fair to say Mr. Elmendorf, in doing his job as an impartial “umpire,” has done more than anyone to slow the rush to pass a mammoth health care reform proposal.

About a month ago, the CBO analyzed a health care plan sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy and estimated it would cost a staggering a $1.5 trillion and still leave millions of Americans without health insurance. That analysis was quite a blow to President Obama, who has repeatedly promised to cover everyone and wring enough savings out of the health care system to pay for universal coverage.

But the biggest blow to Obamacare was delivered week before last, when Mr. Elmendorf told members of Congress pending health care reform proposals don’t make the changes “necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount.”

Perhaps Mr. Elmendorf’s meeting at the White House was an innocent attempt by the president to figure out why his ideas about health care don’t conform to fiscal reality. If so, he should be expected to scale back his grand plans for a “public option” and concentrate on making the private system stronger.