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What Should Trump Seek in a Budget Director?

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Leon Panetta, former budget director under President Clinton, said: “It helps if it’s one son-of-a-bitch, who knows the numbers and the budget and the implications.”  Leon Panetta, former budget director under President Clinton, said: “It helps if it’s one son-of-a-bitch, who knows the numbers and the budget and the implications.”  J. Scott Applewhite/AP

News reports this week have President-elect Donald Trump considering Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn to head the Office of Management and Budget.

Unclear from Cohn’s Wall Street background is whether he would meet basic criteria that two past and prominent budget directors laid out at a Thursday lunch talk put on by the nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The crusading anti-federal-debt group showcased its three co-chairs: former Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn.; former Clinton administration budget director Leon Panetta (who also chaired the House Budget Committee long before serving in the Obama Cabinet); and former Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, budget director under President George W. Bush and now president of Purdue University. 

All expressed disappointment that the national debt and rising budget deficit were not discussed more in the presidential campaign, and all acknowledged that little is known about Trump’s fiscal leanings—indeed, the coming new administration, Daniels said, “is still finding out about itself.”

But all agreed that significant action to assure a fiscally healthy government for future generations will require the new president, not just the hydra-headed Congress, to make living within the government’s means a priority.

Asked what traits Trump should look for in a good budget director, Panetta said, “It helps if it’s one son-of-a-bitch, who knows the numbers and the budget and the implications.” He added that “most presidents don’t know” those details. “It also helps to have a good relationship with the president,” and to be trusted, he said.

Daniels said the budget director needs to ask, “What are the limits of my authority?” He or she can “either be a hammer, addressing 10 problems a day so the president doesn’t have to," or more of “a mechanic, a cipher,” Daniels said. He added that the budget chief “needs others in the Cabinet to think, 'there’s no sense in messing with Panetta-- he speaks for the president.’ ” 

The three ex-officials spoke after releasing a memorandum to Trump titled “Governing Through Leadership,” which outlines 10 basic steps for tackling the hairy and scary issues of discretionary spending, taxes and entitlement issues.

One recommendation of concern to agencies: “In your first 100 days, you should instruct each federal agency to send you a list of programs, policies or rules that they view as wasteful, low-priority, duplicative, obsolete, inefficient, or damaging to economic growth. And then you should work to eliminate, consolidate, or reform these areas of government.” Trump made a pledge to reduce government waste during the campaign. 

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Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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