A bespectacled economist, tie askew and skin a stranger to the sun, walked into Larry Breese's office on the sixth floor of the New Executive Office Building last Thursday. He was carrying a pile of paper covered with figures.
"I'm ready with part six," the economist said.
"I'll get back to you in 15 minutes," Breese replied.
A young woman in tennis shoes came in. Breese directed her to an adjoining room. "Can you get that over to North Capitol Street now? " he asked.
She left and the telephone rang. "Joe? . . . part three? . . . . It's on its way."
On the desk in front of him were pictures of the Scottish terriers his wife raises and the azaleas he tends in his Rockville garden in the spring. He does not see much of the Scotties or his wife these days. The azaleas are dormant, but the federal budget is in bloom.
From mid-December until this past weekend, Breese, a GS15 printer in OMB's budget preparation branch, serves as the traffic cop on the pieces of paper that will become the fiscal 1984 budget proposal.
"You want to know who forces everyone in government to make decisions? Who forces the president to make decisions? " asked one high-ranking OMB official. "Larry Breese."
In fact, Breese, who stands 6 feet-and-change tall and wears argyle sweater vests, is the personification of two unchanging principles: the law of the land, which sets the date by which the president has to send his budget proposal to Congress, and the laws of physics, which limit the speed with which paper can pass through a printing press.
He gets figures from OMB's budget examiners, ships them to the Government Printing Office, gets galley proofs back and ships them to the budget examiners, who ship them back to the agencies for review.
While agency officials and the budget examiners--and eventually the bosses of both--fight, Breese waits. But he can wait only so long.
The bitter policy fights, the back-and-forth between OMB's budget cutters and the departmental bureaucrats fighting for their programs or their people, are so much background noise to the 56-year-old Breese, who started out as a printer on a small paper in southern Maryland more than three decades ago.
His concerns are paper, the 10 or so printers and proofreaders sent over by GPO and the clock.
"For printing purposes, a policy change is just another paragraph done over," he said. "Someone may agonize all day writing it. To me it's just another printing concern. There are hundreds of people out there worrying about what the budget says. I don't."
What he does worry about is when he gets the figures. Through his hands pass all 2,200 pages that make up the four budget documents--the Budget, the Budget in Brief, the Budget Appendix and the Special Analyses.
Two easels stand to the left of his desk with charts dotted with red, yellow and purple, indicating how far along various segments have progressed.
But the charts can be deceptive. "Everything's political," he said. "Everything's subject to change."
Telling policymakers that they have to get things done can be tricky. But this is Breese's 25th budget, so he has had time to learn the tricks. "You don't hound people to death," he said. "You treat 'em like adults. They know what the deadlines are." What happens when a deadline approaches? "That's where my managing has to take effect."
Asked if the high-level OMB bureaucrats on his floor regard him as a high school student might regard a hall monitor, he smiled. Sometimes, he said, his appearance has prompted moans of "not you again!" or "Oh-oh. What'd I do now? "
Tempers can be shortened by the hours, which get long after Thanksgiving and longer after Christmas. "We turn in material to GPO 15 hours a day," Breese said. "We have a continuous flow of paper back and forth. Some things proceed more quickly, like the narrative sections." Late decisions on figures, however, "affect everything. Late decisions ripple though several places; they would be reflected in several tables."
But for the past decade, computers have helped ease some of the trauma caused by last-minute policy shifts. And as computers can be used to speed the process, they also can be used to enforce deadlines. Sort of.
"At some point, they lock up the computer," Breese said. When?
"Whenever they finish making decisions."
What does the OMB printer do when the budget is done?
"Any other reports or publications they might have--it can be stationery, envelopes, that sort of thing. Next month we start revamping the formats and the computer program for next year's budget."