Meet Washington's geeky fiscal referees: The CBO

In this Jan. 27, 2011 file photo, Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Douglas Elmendorf testifies on on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Budget Committee hearing on the Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2011-2021.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, file

With all the proposals and counter-proposals and conflicting claims flying around Washington, it's hard to know whom to believe.

CBS News correspondent Whit Johnson reports that, when it comes to getting the budgetary 411, most of Washington relies on the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office.

On Capitol Hill, you'll see them regularly at hearings, and their reports on congressmen's desks. Last year alone, the CBO crunched numbers for Congress in 14 hearings, 33 reports, and 12 budget reviews.

Some call them "one of the geekiest agencies in Washington."

Housed on Capitol Hill in what used to be the FBI fingerprint filing center, the CBO is a non-partisan agency with about 250 economists and policy analysts. Its job is to look at every piece of legislation proposed on The Hill and answer a single question: How much is this gonna cost?

"They pretty much do this (thumbs up) or this (thumbs down) on all fiscal policy in Washington," says Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

That is why, earlier this week, when the CBO told John Boehner and Harry Reid neither of their debt limit proposals would cut as much as they claimed, nobody argued. Both Republicans and Democrats revised their numbers.

"We've got to have an official score keeper. Even when you disagree with them, if you don't have an arbiter, you've got chaos," says Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

CBO figures have not always been accepted so willingly. During the healthcare debate, then-CBO Director Peter Orzak took a beating during his congressional testimony.

Former CBO Director Douglass Holtz-Eakin says although CBO employees are sometimes a convenient scapegoat for controversy, they do not tell Congress what to do.

"They'll happily provide options, but they won't say this is the best one and this is the second best. They'll say congress here go you, enjoy the menu," Holtz-Eakin says.

The CBO is on call this weekend, available to crunch more numbers, if Congress asks.