Today the President announced his intent to nominate Jack Lew as Director of the Office of Management and Budget. I support Mr. Lew’s nomination. Mr. Lew is extremely well-qualified for the position and should be quickly confirmed. While I think I will disagree with him on many policy issues, he is an honorable man, a responsible policymaker, and a good pick for this President.

Here is the White House fact sheet on Mr. Lew. He is now serving as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources at the State Department. In the Clinton Administration, he served as Deputy Director of OMB, then as Director, so this would be his second stint in this role.

I got to know Mr. Lew a little during his Clinton Administration service when I worked on budget issues for then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. I don’t know him well but was always impressed when I interacted with him. At the time he was usually sitting across a negotiating table from my boss. I negotiated directly with him a couple of times, although not on anything major.

Here is why I think Mr. Lew will be a good budget director.

  1. He is an honest budgeteer. Many in Washington want to skew numbers to avoid having to make hard tradeoffs. An honest budgeteer spends personal capital to fight those who would use scoring gimmicks to disguise the costs of their preferred policy. Honest budgeteers get sneered at a lot, often by colleagues within their own party. It’s sort of like having a tough but fair referee — players come to respect them even when they disagree with a particular call. I expect I will disagree with many of the policies Mr. Lew will publicly advocate, but I think he’ll be honest and transparent about them.
  2. He is a straight shooter in dealing with Congress. Mr. Lew was a very tough negotiator, but he never let it get personal, and he always seemed to be trying to work toward a solution. I never felt like I had to double-check what he was telling me or my boss, and I felt that his word was good. This didn’t always mean that it was easy to negotiate with him — I remember him as someone who would unfailingly stick to his negotiating position even if everyone in the room was yelling at him, if that’s what his boss wanted him to do. I would have liked him to have been more flexible at times, but I always felt like he was playing straight with my boss and me.
  3. He is a manager. OMB has an enormous role to play in helping the President manage an unwieldy Executive Branch bureaucracy. I think there is a high likelihood Mr. Lew will devote more attention to management than we have seen so far, and that the OMB career staff will be empowered to make sure the President’s policy goals are being implemented as efficiently as possible. This does not mean that money won’t be wasted, but instead that some of the worst bureaucratic inefficiencies may be trimmed. OMB needs a Director who listens to and strengthens the career OMB staff.
  4. He has a low-ego loyal staff / agent approach. Like Treasury Secretary Geithner, Mr. Lew worked his way up from being a staffer. (I am biased in favor of this background.) Some Cabinet-level officials make the mistake of thinking they are the boss, and that their job is to implement their own policy views, rather than those of the President. I think a great Presidential advisor is one who advocates vigorously for his views behind closed doors, and even argues privately with the President when necessary, but who does not trumpet his own views or his recommendations to the world at large. When you work for the President you’re supposed to talk publicly about the President’s views, not your own. I anticipate there will be no daylight between Director Lew’s views and the President’s, and I don’t think we’ll see press reports about how the President is accepting his budget director’s recommendations on X.
  5. He understands the value of the budget process. One of the great travesties of this year is Congress’ failure to enact a budget resolution and the breakdown of the traditional budget process. This breakdown is certain to lead to poor decision-making. I am hopeful that Mr. Lew, who has participated in many budgets, will help restore some order and structured decision-making. Let’s have policymakers make some choices rather than just having a spending free-for-all.
  6. He can fight and he can compromise. A President needs a budget director who can do both. I have seen Mr. Lew do both, and he’s equally good at both. With an expanded Republican presence expected in Congress next year, the new Budget Director will need both skills.
  7. He is smart, knowledgeable, strong and experienced. OMB will be more powerful as a result of his bureaucratic knowledge, strength, and experience. While he may get rolled by a free-spending President and/or West Wing staff, I expect a power shift from the Cabinet to OMB as Lew enforces stronger spending (and regulatory?) discipline.

I don’t know Mr. Lew’s personal policy views well because every time I dealt with him (10+ years ago) he only talked about what his boss President Clinton wanted. My impression, however, is that he is neither particularly liberal nor particularly conservative for the Democratic party. I don’t think of him as a Blue Dog Democrat, nor as a big spending liberal. I would like President Obama to have a budget director with views closer to my own. But I can be comfortable with one who may be more liberal than I would like, but who has other personal and professional qualities that I think comprise a responsible policymaker. I anticipate disagreeing with many of the policies Mr. Lew will soon advocate, in many cases quite vigorously. I am hopeful, however, that his presence at OMB will elevate the fiscal policy debate and that he will provide honorable service to the President and to the Nation.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)