Werfel, 42, rose through the ranks at the Office of Management and Budget and the Justice Department as a budget analyst and lawyer before Obama tapped him to serve as OMB controller in 2009. As controller he was responsible for the government’s financial management, contracting, information technology and personnel policy.
Now he has the unenviable task of overhauling the IRS, which is reeling after admitting that employees aggressively targeted certain groups applying for tax-exempt status. Werfel will serve as acting director through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, the White House said.
Werfel may be well liked by colleagues at the OMB and the White House, but some lawmakers seemed skeptical or said they didn’t know much about him.
“Placing a White House insider in charge of an agency whose leadership willfully misled Congress and targeted American people for exercising free speech does absolutely nothing to restore the public’s confidence in Washington,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said in a statement.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said he wasn’t familiar with Werfel.
“If I was the president I would find the very best businessman I possibly could who’d be willing to take it over and have the authority to be able to straighten the mess out,” Hatch said. “I don’t know whether Werfel has that kind of dimension or not, but I hope he does.”
Joshua Bolten, who served as OMB chief and White House chief of staff for George W. Bush, said Werfel has a reputation as a nonpartisan problem-solver.
“He’s completely a career guy, and somebody who had an excellent reputation which I came to understand he deserved,” Bolten said.
“I think he’s a smart choice because the IRS is clearly an agency that has been badly mismanaged, with the insertion of extremely inappropriate political considerations and gone badly awry,” Bolten said. “He’s a guy who is a nonpartisan professional who has dealt with tough management situations and should rapidly earn the respect of career folks there.”
Bolten said he was surprised to receive a call Thursday from Werfel, whom he hadn’t heard from in years. “I asked him how he was doing, and he said, ‘I’ve had easier days.’ ”
Werfel had called to ask whether Bolten could serve as a reference in case anyone from the Obama administration wanted to know about his time at the OMB.
Werfel did not respond to an e-mail or a call seeking comment.
Werfel moved to Washington after earning degrees from Cornell University, Duke University and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He worked at the OMB before serving briefly as a career attorney at the Justice Department. He returned to the OMB when it was run by Jack Lew, now Treasury secretary.
As controller, Werfel worked with Lew and other top OMB officials to execute the White House’s “Campaign to Cut Waste,” a plan that included stopping hundreds of millions of dollars in improper payments to fraudulent government contractors and beneficiaries, overseeing more than a $2 billion reduction in government travel costs, creating plans to slash the federal government’s real estate portfolio and renegotiating several multimillion-dollar IT contracts at federal agencies.
Ron Klain, a veteran Democratic strategist who served as Vice President Biden’s chief of staff in the early days of the Obama administration, recalled how Werfel worked to establish Recovery.gov, a federal Web site that tracked how billions of dollars were being distributed as part of the 2009 economic stimulus program.
“We did something that had never been done. In real time all the money we spent was put on a Web site and you could track where the money was being spent every 90 days,” Klain said. “Danny played a key role in dealing with the complex issues on that. There just wasn’t a problem he couldn’t solve.”
Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which has worked closely with Werfel in recent years, said Werfel will need to restore the public’s trust while also finding ways to “regenerate motivation and morale at the IRS itself.”
“There are very few people who have had to deal with the aftermath of a crisis like what happened at the IRS,” Stier said. “This will be a challenge. A very big challenge.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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