By Erik Wasson - 05/28/14 06:00 AM EDT
When President Obama needs a reliever to help him out of a crisis, he makes a call to his bullpen — the Office of Management and Budget.
Time and time again, the president has called in the nerdy office, which has become a sort of second brain for his administration.
When Bill Daley fell out with Senate Democrats and Obama needed to replace him as White House chief of staff, Obama called in Jack Lew from the budget office to do the job.
After HealthCare.gov crashed, Obama called in former acting budget chief Jeff Zients to clean up the mess.
Now, in his latest call to the brain trust, Obama has turned to Sylvia Matthews Burwell, his budget chief, to take over from Kathleen Sebelius at the Department of Health and Human Services. She appears headed toward an easy confirmation as soon as next week.
And just this month, Obama turned to Rob Nabors, a former deputy budget director, to handle a new controversy. Nabors is leading the White House probe into reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs had failed to care for sick veterans.
Obama allies say that the president has built an especially strong, centralized OMB, and that it makes sense for him to draw on it for talent.
Critics paint a darker view, saying the OMB is where political hacks get groomed for bigger jobs.
Kenneth Baer, former senior adviser at Obama’s OMB, noted that there is a long tradition of OMB directors assuming higher office, from Leon Panetta, who went on to become Defense secretary; to Josh Bolton, who became George W. Bush’s chief of staff; to George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, who became President Reagan’s secretaries of State and Defense, respectively.
“OMB directors are the decathletes of government officials. You need to know about everything, you are exposed to every part of the government,” said Baer, who now heads Crosscut Strategies, a communications firm.
He added that the OMB director has more personnel management experience than other top economic advisers.
“People like Werfel, Zients, Burwell and Nabors have had to deal with the management side of OMB, not just the big budget picture. It makes sense to call on this experience, provided they did their job well at OMB, when managerial problems arise elsewhere,” said Bob Bixby of the budget watchdog The Concord Coalition.
In addition, the budget office often attracts the best and brightest because it is seen as being close to the White House and a stepping stone to more political power. It’s also a relatively small agency of about 500 people where a director can have power.
“I know some of my former colleagues said that they were approached to get big Senate-confirmed jobs at agencies, but they wanted OMB. They said they would be able to have a bigger impact,” Baer said.
The reach and importance of the budget office compared to the power of Cabinet officials is often misunderstood.
“OMB and Treasury are the two departments that have enormous sway over the other executive branch agencies and their spending and have a high proportion of very smart, analytical employees,” said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Some in Congress argue Obama has used the budget office as a test and that once officials prove they can stick to the administration line on spending, they are trusted with a crisis.
“OMB frequently feels less like a budget office and more like a political loyalty test. If people deliver the spin, they get promoted,” one GOP aide said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) on Friday criticized Shaun Donovan, Obama’s new pick to be OMB chief, and alleged the president has been putting politics above substance in choosing executives for the agency.
“The Office of Management and Budget should be one of the least political departments of government. But the president has made it into one of the most political,” Sessions said.
He argued the OMB has hidden the size of budget deficits by using gimmicks and failed to come up with a plan for fixing Medicare as required by law.
An influential member of the deficit hawk community noted that none of Obama’s OMB officials have been able to strike a large, bipartisan bargain on the budget deficit.
“Since OMB directors have to know about so many parts of the government, it makes sense that the president would rely on them for a variety of critical projects. It’s just a shame that thus far, putting in place a significant budget deal hasn’t been one of those projects,” Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said.
Baer for his part acknowledged that continuing to poach OMB officials does have a drawback for the agency.
“Continuity at the top is always preferred by the people in the organization, and OMB is no different … but the organization is extremely professional and is used to senior leadership turning over,” he said.