Senators press budget office nominee on meeting deadlines

April 10, 2013

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama’s nominee for budget director, told lawmakers in confirmation hearings this week that she’ll demand better management of government to bring lower costs.

“It’s more important than ever that we are operating the government in the most efficient, effective manner we can,” Burwell told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Tuesday at the first of two hearings.

Burwell, 47, is a veteran of the Clinton White House who joined the nonprofit world after Clinton left office. She’s president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, the Arkansas firm’s philanthropic arm, and before that led the Global Development Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

After two drama-free hearings in which she appeared to have bipartisan support, Burwell appears headed for easy Senate confirmation.

But given that her nomination comes in the middle of a partisan battle in Congress over government spending and the best way to tackle the deficit, she was caught up in the debate.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama’s nominee for budget director, told lawmakers in confirmation hearings this week that she’ll demand better management of government to bring lower costs. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

As deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1998 to 2001, Burwell was involved in crafting budgets with substantial surpluses. This was not lost on Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, who asked if she would commit to submitting a balanced budget next year.

She would not.

“Senator, we are in a very, very deep hole,” Burwell told Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member. “There is a balanced budget and there is the word balanced ‘approach’ ” to reducing the deficit.

“I can tell you’re not going to submit a balanced budget next year,” the frustrated senator said.

Wednesday’s hearing came hours before the president’s release of the long-delayed 2014 budget, which was due Feb. 4. The Obama administration has argued that uncertainty around the “fiscal cliff” debate slowed the process. But House and Senate Republicans have hammered Obama for the two-month delay.

Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) pressed Burwell for an on-time delivery next year, saying that late budgets “send a message of lack of concern.”

Burwell pledged to do better.

The OMB has not had a permanent leader since January 2012, when Director Jack Lew left to become White House chief of staff. Lew was recently confirmed as Treasury secretary. Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients has served as acting director since Lew left the budget office.

Burwell pledged to press agencies to do a better job of spending public money. She said she would continue the administration’s initiatives to, for example, stop technology projects that get off track. She also said the use of electronic health records in government health programs needs to be widespread, because it saves money.

She added that she would work to make sure federal agencies take seriously a law requiring them to set standards to measure their effectiveness.

“We need to make clear that this is not a box-checking exercise . . . but a tool that will deliver impact,” she said Wednesday.

A Rhodes scholar who spent two years at the consulting firm McKinsey before joining the Clinton campaign in 1992, Burwell has a penchant for management jargon. She talks about “bending the cost curve” to save money and creating a “forum for prioritization” at the OMB to get things done.

But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) the fellow West Virginian who introduced her to the Budget Committee, described her as “grounded” and from a stock that’s “defined by deeds as much as their words.”

“Where we come from, we have to stretch the dollar as far as we can,” Manchin said. “She understands the value of the dollar.”

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Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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