Q&A with Stephen McMillin

As deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Stephen McMillin helped oversee the development of this year’s federal budget. McMillin sat down with The Hill this week to discuss the finer points of President George W. Bush’s spending plan.

Q: A number of lawmakers have complained about OMB issuing this year’s budget electronically, saying a printed copy is much easier to use. What is your response to those complaints?

First of all, anyone who does want a printed copy has to go in and get one from GPO [the Government Printing Office] if their office is willing to pay for it. Secondly, of all the thousands and thousands of pages that go into a regular budget submission, I find it hard to believe that every single user has a need for every single one of those pages to be printed out.

So, if you have a particular interest in the Department of Transportation and you want those 30 pages in print and available to you, then head to the printer and print those pages out. We think it better serves the taxpayer not to have thousands and thousands of unused pages sitting on bookshelves all around Washington.

Q: What is OMB’s biggest priority in this year’s budget?

Well, the biggest priority is to get the president’s growth package, or something close to it, enacted as soon as possible.  For everything we do, the most important single factor is the performance of the economy and so whether or not we are able to bring the budget in at a reasonable level, whether we are able to make progress towards getting the balance — frankly, whether we can have a government and an economy that is taking care of the people of this country — depends on strong economic performance.

Q: The majority party in Congress might stall on this year’s budget and wait out for a new administration. How is OMB working to get this budget passed before President Bush leaves office?

Well, there is only so much we can do. We have spent the past several weeks coming up with our proposals. But, ultimately, it is Congress’s responsibility under the Constitution to initiate and pass those spending bills, and we can give them all the information they need to help them do their jobs, but ultimately we cannot force them to do their jobs. I think it is baked in the appropriators’ DNA that their first preference would be regular order on the appropriations bills, to get their work done in an orderly fashion, and to get bills done by the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. Last year, there [were] some people involved in the process who thought that delaying would somehow benefit them when it came to the final result. I think in retrospect they may conclude they miscalculated. Anyone who is trying to factor in presidential politics in completing this year’s appropriations process runs a similar risk of miscalculation.

Q: Last year’s budget battle ended rather mildly, with no shutdown of the federal government and Democrats meeting many of the president’s demands. How do you see this year playing out?

It’s early in the process, so we don’t have a good sense yet of how the Congress will respond to the president’s request. Certainly, some of the rhetoric is the same. The president’s approach to this year’s appropriations bills is similar to last year. We have prioritized security spending. We have taken care of what we think are the most important priorities in the non-security area and then tried to hold over all growth to a reasonable level. We will see how the Congress responds to that.

Q: The Bush administration has taken an aggressive stance against earmarks, which has angered those in Congress.  Beyond the president’s executive order issued earlier this year, what else does OMB plan to do on the issue of earmarks?

No specific plans other than we will continue to do our part to increase the transparency of the earmarking process. We have got a website, earmarks.omb.gov, where we now have the preliminary information on the earmarks in the 2008 omnibus. We will get that up live, and that will serve as our benchmark for the 2009 process as well. We have another database that was set up under the Coburn-Obama legislation that went live back in December. Ultimately, we want to continue to find ways to integrate that data and the data in the earmarks database so the American people have a good sense [of] where their dollars are being spent.

Q: What are the major differences working for Director Jim Nussle compared to former Director Rob Portman?

The biggest difference is in how the two of them prepare for meetings, hearings or press availabilities, things of that nature. Director Portman was a very meticulous guy. He was absolutely ravenous when it came to soaking up the kind of information that the staff here at OMB are able to produce. Director Nussle has a bit more of a relaxed style.

He has been working with this administration on its budgets from the Hill since back in 2001, so a lot of the basics were old hat to him. Whereas Director Portman would ask a series of questions and try to draw the information out of the staff, Director Nussle’s approach, which sometimes has a tendency to surprise the staff, is to basically challenge them on the information and the analysis they are providing.

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