The OMB Director Shouldn’t Be ‘Partisan’? That’s a New One

In commenting on President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a former OMB director, invented a new qualification for the job: “It’s the partisan nature,” Portman said. “Of all the jobs, that’s one where I think you would need to be careful not to have someone who’s overtly partisan.”

Nonsense. That has never been true of OMB, and it isn’t true today. If Portman wants to vote against Neera Tanden, who is president of the Center for American Progress and Biden’s OMB choice, he’s free to do so. If Portman winds up chairing one of the relevant Senate committees, he’s also free to refuse to hold a hearing on her nomination. But he can’t make up nonexistent traditions. 

Portman was a Republican member of the House before he led the OMB, and he was therefore himself “overtly partisan.” So were Democrat Leon Panetta and Republicans David Stockman, Jim Nussle and Mick Mulvaney. Others have been, like Tanden, political operatives or, like Bert Lance for Jimmy Carter, close allies of the president. Or both. Caspar Weinberger, who worked for Ronald Reagan, had been the chairman of the California Republican Party. How much more partisan can you get? 

There hasn’t been a nonpartisan budget director since the Bureau of the Budget became OMB 50 years ago. The directors who haven’t been politicians have usually been governing professionals, some with campaign experience and all with a consistent record of sticking with one political party.

And rightly so. The job, one of the most important in the administration, consists of balancing the president’s and the party’s policy and political interests. Presidency scholar Andrew Rudalevige, writing on Twitter, said the OMB director is more involved in politics than in agency management (something the deputy director handles). The OMB, he says, “needs someone who (a) has president’s ear and ensures that its work will be in the mix; (b) loves info and, relatedly, respects careerists.”

After all, the agency’s main job is to put together the president’s annual budget and submit it to Congress. That means dealing with requests from all the executive-branch departments and agencies and making them conform to the president’s policy choices and priorities. The budget isn’t merely a wish list for Congress; it’s also a process used to push the executive branch toward the president’s preferences rather than those of Congress, interest groups or bureaucrats themselves. Making use of this tool requires understanding what the party as a whole wants. Indeed, in many areas where the president has no strong preferences, the party consensus is probably the most important baseline to consider.

Sometimes, the president is content to let the budget simply proclaim the administration’s preferences and then be dead on arrival in Congress. More often, though, the president wants to fight for it — which means writing it with Hill politics in mind. It always needs to be written with internal bureaucratic politics in mind — to prevent department and agency heads from publicly questioning White House priorities. And then there are times when the president’s preferences clash with important party-aligned groups; the budget is the place where such things get sorted out. An effective OMB director will anticipate fights and make sure the president knows what’s coming. 

In short, the job of OMB director is highly partisan, calling for both neutral expertise — it’s important to be able to judge which policies actually work — and extensive political skills. Surely Senator Portman knows this. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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