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6 degrees of sequestration

Can the new OMB chief tame DC’s budget monster?

Tracey Samuelson Mar 4, 2013
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6 degrees of sequestration

Can the new OMB chief tame DC’s budget monster?

Tracey Samuelson Mar 4, 2013
HTML EMBED:
COPY

On Monday, President Obama announced the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Burwell is currently the head of the Wal-Mart Foundation and would need to be confirmed by the Senate before she gets to work.

However, she has worked in the OMB before — under President Bill Clinton.

That experience means Burwell knows roughly what the job will entail, though, if confirmed, she’ll take the reins of the OMB office at time when the budget is the subject partisan war.

“I just can’t imagine taking over as director of OMB at a more difficult time,” says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She also worked in the OMB under President Clinton.

Sawhill says the job will now involve a great deal of budget cutting without much possibility to soften those blows.

“You have no candy to give out,” she explains. “There’s no way to sweeten any of your requests. It’s going to be all pain all the time.”

Even under more normal economic and political conditions, the budget director post is a demanding one.

“You have to have a lot of skills,” says Jim Miller, the budget director under President Ronald Reagan. “You have to be a geek of sorts, you have to be an accountant of sorts, an economist [of sorts], but you also have to be an operator.”

Political savvy is important to get things done in Washington, says Miller, especially with the sequestration in full swing.

In effect, the OMB director serves as the gatekeeper to the president — and much of the country’s purse-strings. Therefore, if confirmed, Burwell will be one powerful woman.

“If I’m a federal agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Energy, I can’t even ask for a certain budget without passing my request first through the White House Office of Management and Budget,” says Daniel Carpenter, a professor of government and the director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University.

Yet, the complicated political climate may also be an opportunity for Burwell.

“This is also a time to shine,” says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. “So yes, it’s high stress, but it’s there’s a risk-reward that could make the new OMB director a star.”

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