The White House Office of Management and Budget, invariably known by its initials OMB, is one of the most powerful and, outside of Washington, obscure government agencies.
Running OMB ranks as one of the capital’s most thankless jobs, especially in the midst of current battles over automatic spending cuts, a continuing resolution later this month to keep the government functioning through the end of the fiscal year and putting the finishing touches on President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget.
On Monday, the president chose Sylvia Mathews Burwell for that task. Burwell, 47, comes out of the nonprofit sector. She had been running the Walmart Foundation since 2011 and before that the Global Development Program of another philanthropic giant, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Burwell’s nomination – she still must be confirmed by the Senate – is partial refutation of the criticism that Obama tends to staff his administration with white males. But it is the formidable resume she compiled during the Clinton administration that more than qualifies her for the job.
She was chief of staff to Clinton’s treasury secretary, Robert Rubin; a deputy to White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, now a major player in the deficit debate; and finally deputy director of OMB.
For a number of its occupants, the budget director’s office has been a stepping stone toward greater things. Jack Lew went from OMB to Obama’s chief of staff to treasury secretary. Leon Panetta, who just stepped down as secretary of defense, led OMB in the Clinton administration. Rob Portman, George W. Bush’s budget director, is now a U.S. senator from Ohio. One of his predecessors, Mitch Daniels, is governor of Indiana.
Burwell brings another credential that may be useful in the current climate: During the Clinton administration, she became adept at dealing with a Republican-controlled Congress.
She was also part of a team that pulled off four consecutive balanced budgets and even showed a surplus. Thus, Burwell is one of the few remaining Washington power players who know what a solvent government looks like.