Budget Director Nominee Wants More Emphasis on Management

Obama introduced Sylvia Matthews Burwell last month. Obama introduced Sylvia Matthews Burwell last month. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama’s choice to head the Office of Management and Budget elicited enthusiasm from Republicans as well as Democrats on a key Senate panel on Tuesday, though several used the confirmation hearing as a chance to lay down markers on issues of regulatory overreach, tax reform and the value of cost-benefit analysis.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a Clinton White House veteran currently heading the Wal-Mart Foundation, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee her primary focus will be to “contribute to achieving balanced deficit reduction, increased efficiency and effectiveness in how government works, and targeted investments that grow the economy and create jobs.” She stressed the need for more emphasis on the management side of OMB, and said she hoped to “contribute to ensuring OMB is a place where talented people want to go and that the institution is strong for other administrations.”

Burwell was introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who has known her since she was an 8-year-old in West Virginia, and who noted “she could have made a fortune” in the private sector but chose public service.

Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., welcomed her experience in the public and private sector at a time when the problem of “longstanding vacancies in senior positions throughout the federal government” has become so prevalent that it creates executive branch “Swiss cheese.” Eying the larger fiscal picture, he added that “Burwell’s prior experience in government has prepared her well to lead during this challenging period for our nation, a time when we can no longer afford to avoid making the tough choices necessary to put our nation on a responsible and sustainable long-term fiscal path.”

Burwell’s confirmation prospects were also portrayed as bright by such perennial Republican critics of the Obama administration as Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona.

Hints of coming policy clashes came from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who asked her to defend the government’s current regulatory regime against charges from small businesses that rules cost them millions of dollars with little gain for health and the environment. He also confronted Burwell with figures showing that opportunities for business to comment on proposed rules had declined over the past 20 years.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who was budget director under President George W. Bush, asked why OMB under acting director Jeffrey Zients was late with the required regulatory agenda documents in 2012 and solicited her views on the coming debate over whether independent regulatory agencies should be subject to the same requirements for performing cost-benefit analysis as other agencies.

The skepticism toward regulation was echoed by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who, while praising Burwell’s leadership skills, said she hoped to see OMB “bypass the Beltway mentality and ratchet down the zealous regulators with their ‘I want to make the world perfect’ way of thinking.”

Burwell said she believed OMB’s approach to regulations should “promote health, safety and the environment at the same time it considers economic growth, information and jobs.” She said part of leadership’s responsibility is to “make sure that the right voices are at the table” and that the agency’s “culture, thought process and approach allows small business to interact with OMB.”

Speaking on the day of release of a key Government Accountability Office report on reducing agency duplication and waste, she called GAO an important partner for helping OMB set priorities. She cited the need for private-sector-type performance metrics for agency programs and personnel reviews under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.

And she stressed the value of using information technology and transparency to bring in citizenry and businesses during the rulemaking process while also permitting “departments to see what other departments are spending.” With the website USAspending.gov, Burwell added, “it’s important to decide whether the audience is the people seeking funds or the American public.”

A top priority, Burwell said, would be “to make sure I have good relationships with others in the Cabinet.” Her overall priorities would include “regular order and relationships,” which includes timely responses to congressional budget and appropriations panels; “effective use of both management and budget parts of OMB so we can grow the economy in the short and long term;” and respecting OMB as an institution.

Asked by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., whether she supported additional revenues to resolve the budget stalemate, she said, “Yes, I believe we need a combination of spending reductions and revenues to get to the numbers we’re trying to get to on a path to reducing the debt-to-[gross domestic product] ratio.”

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