Pitfalls ahead for potential OMB successors?

Tuesday - 1/10/2012, 9:43pm EST

Robert Shea, principal, Grant Thornton

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Following the announcement that Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew will take over as White House chief of staff, speculation is already swirling about possible successors.

But the changes at the top of OMB are coming just as the agency is preparing budget requests for fiscal 2013. And a search for a successor amid the beginning of the intense budget season will likely only complicate matters.

Officials said Lew would stay on at the agency to finalize the official budget request due next month. But Robert Shea, a principal at Grant Thornton and former associate director for administration and government performance at OMB, said the timing is "not ideal."

Heather Higginbottom (Photo: White House)

"The truth is, the budget is at the printer. But the preparation for its release is going on relentlessly now," he told In Depth with Francis Rose. "So to have the quarterback being moved to a different position in the middle of all that is a big surprise."

The OMB chief serves as the "lead spokesman for the budget," Shea explained: "The guy who's going to stand up and explain the major policy proposals that are included in the President's budget, the guy who's going to begin the debate that the Obama administration really needs to win — that they're being fiscally responsible."

In other words, a successful successor must be able to sell the President's budget request to an increasingly skeptical Congress.

From Varsity to JV?

The current OMB deputy director Heather Higginbottom, who was confirmed by the Senate in October, would seem to lack the confidence of Congress, Shea said, calling her confirmation hearings a "rough patch."

Jeffrey Zients (Photo: OMB.gov)

On the other hand, OMB deputy director for management, Jeffrey Zients, has filled in for the position before, serving as acting director when it was vacated in 2010 by the Obama administration's first budget director Peter Orzsag.

But Shea said even Zients may not be the budget defender OMB needs in Lew's absence.

"So, if you go from Jack Lew, who is a hall-of-famer budgeteer — if there is such a thing — to Jeff Zients, a very talented guy, but not at all experienced in the budget arena, you have have gone from the varsity to the JV," Shea said.

Best face forward

Still, the nitty-gritty, agency-level budget calculations have already been completed, Shea said, and the wrangling over the selection and confirmation of a new budget chief may not make that much difference to individual agencies, Shea said.

The OMB chief can "set the stage," Shea said, by making the high-level arguments for the President's budget. "But I don't think it makes that big of a difference at the agency level," he added. "Their budget justifications are likewise just being wrapped up, the testimonies are being drafted and the big issues have been decided. So, it's really just getting prepared to put their best face forward."

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