In previous years, White House officials passed back budget drafts the day before Thanksgiving, with an expectation that agencies would file formal responses shortly after the holiday. But OMB Director Jacob J. Lew said recently that he decided to move passback to after Thanksgiving, deeming the previous schedule “cruel and unusual punishment” for agency bosses hoping to spend time with family.
“Quality of life isn’t so high during this period,” Lew joked at an October breakfast hosted by Politico, noting that as budget director, “you go home with about three hours of reading every night, you have about two or three hours of meetings every day, and then you have the rest of your job to do.”
Before Thanksgiving, Lew and his team of aides at OMB reviewed budget proposals for about 25 agencies, with each meeting lasting about two hours. During the meetings, aides and veterans of the process said, Lew heard from OMB budget officials, known as program associate directors, who review spending for various parts of the government and set proposed limits. The numbers are either approved or sent back for revisions.
During the meetings, “the role of the director is to ask questions and to allow other people to ask questions,” said Alice M. Rivlin, who served as OMB director during the Bill Clinton years, and recalled that the process “is just nonstop.”
Despite last week’s failure of the fiscal “supercommittee” to reach a deal on cutting federal spending and no clear sense of how Congress may proceed on the issue in the coming weeks, OMB officials said that passback is expected to begin this week as scheduled.
Barry Anderson, who served as an OMB budget official for decades, said, “It’s going to be really strange to pass back without knowing” what Congress might decide to do about spending. “OMB may pass back a set of numbers that are fundamentally different than what the law will be, if Congress doesn’t find $1.2 trillion worth of cuts,” he said.
Once an agency reviews its proposed budget, veterans of the process said, mid-level OMB officials meet with agency budget directors to address questions and concerns. Serious disagreements are often addressed by the OMB director, who can take lingering funding disputes directly to the president.
During the Clinton years, Anderson and Rivlin said, two or three Cabinet secretaries might meet with the president to make a final plea for more money.