The Decision Makers: Office of Management and Budget

A look at the top leaders of the agency that coordinates the administration's procurement, financial management, information and regulatory policies.

The Office of Management and Budget assists the president in overseeing the preparation of the federal budget and supervises its administration in executive branch agencies. OMB evaluates agency programs, procedures, and policies; assesses funding demands among agencies; and sets funding priorities. It also oversees and coordinates the administration's procurement, financial management, information, and regulatory policies.

Josh Bolten

What do you do when you have the best job in Washington and the president asks you to give it up for a less enticing assignment? If you are Bolten, you try to talk him out of it. Bolten joined the Bush campaign as policy director in March 1999 and then served as White House deputy chief of staff for policy, enjoying wide purview over national issues. After budget director Mitch Daniels left to run for governor of Indiana in 2003, Bush tapped Bolten to head the agency that symbolizes the president's M.B.A. approach to government. "I originally told the president that I thought I would be a poor choice for this job because I lacked Mitch Daniels's comfort and facility for saying no," Bolten says. "I found it one of the more challenging parts of the job, but I am getting more comfortable with it all the time." Bolten, 50, also says he has come to appreciate that -- with the possible exception of his old job -- the OMB helm is the best position in Washington for someone who truly cares about policy. The job is essentially "to watch out for the fulfillment of the president's agenda, much of which has to be accomplished through the budget process." Bolten has a pure Washington pedigree -- Princeton, Stanford Law, four years on Capitol Hill, and four years with senior appointments in the Bush 41 administration -- but he also plays guitar in a rock band, rides a Harley, and throws late-night bowling parties.

Joel Kaplan
Deputy Director for Budget

Kaplan's problem is that the law requires the president to send his budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. For the past two years, that Monday has come the day after a Super Bowl Sunday featuring Kaplan's beloved New England Patriots. The team marched to victory both times -- while Kaplan prepared for budget briefings. As he wrote on a White House Web site on February 2, 2004, "I was pretty depressed that I had to work during the game -- but I had it on TV." He added, "The budget is exciting too, though." Kaplan insists that the budget really is exciting. "If you are a policy wonk, it is really where the rubber meets the road." Kaplan, 36, is a committed policy wonk and a well-connected lawyer, having clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and for U.S. Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Luttig, who is considered a candidate for a Bush appointment to the high court. Kaplan's conservative credentials and Harvard College/Harvard Law degrees may offset the fact that his family has produced generations of Massachusetts Democrats. Kaplan was a policy adviser to Bush in 2000. He came to the White House to serve as a special assistant in the chief of staff's office, and was tapped in July 2003 to be deputy director of OMB.

Clay Johnson
Deputy Director for Management

Johnson plays the "Fred Thompson" character in the Bush White House -- the large, important, no-nonsense Southern guy with a deep voice, easy-going demeanor, and self-deprecating wit. He is also one of the president's closest advisers, and he embodies Bush's attempt to remake the federal bureaucracy through corporate management principles. "I like fixing things, and I like making things work better -- and there is a lot of opportunity to do that here," Johnson says. He publishes a quarterly report card on federal departments' and agencies' progress toward better management, an effort that he says forces change through the "public shame and humiliation" of failing agencies. Johnson, 59, has known Bush since they attended Phillips Academy in the 1960s, and he roomed with the future president at Yale. During a business career in Texas, Johnson worked for Neiman Marcus, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Frito-Lay, and he also served as chief operating officer of the Dallas Museum of Art. On a White House Web site about management initiatives, the native Texan warned administration appointees about the dangers of "Potomac Fever," a Washington disease that causes people to "use words like 'paradigm' and 'synergy,'" get angry when people at parties don't recognize them, and focus on their own political future instead of the president's agenda. Johnson's remedy: "Visit any small town outside the D.C. media market, go into a local store or restaurant to ask how many Cabinet officials and senior staff members the person waiting on you can name."

John D. Graham
Administrator, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs

Graham, 48, belongs to a very rare species; he's a truly influential academic. And sooner or later, he is expected to return to the ivory tower with Moynihanesque experience at translating theories into policy. A Harvard professor from 1985 to 2001, Graham created the university's Center for Risk Analysis and led the charge for rigorous application of cost-benefit analysis to regulatory decisions. In 2001, he took over the White House office that oversees the paperwork and regulations of federal agencies, setting tough guidelines that federal departments and agencies must follow. For instance, in December 2004, Graham issued a new mandate requiring agencies to get opinions from independent experts before releasing any major scientific conclusions. Supporters said that the policy will improve the quality of the science behind regulatory decisions; critics said that it makes it easier for industry to challenge agency actions.

Austin Smythe
Executive Associate Director

If you need to write a budget, you'll likely want to have Smythe around. His boss, Josh Bolten, said that Smythe is "among the nation's leading experts on the budget process." He ought to be. Smythe (rhymes with "blithe") spent 15 years (1984 to 1999) on the Republican staff of the Senate Budget Committee, working with Sen. Pete Domenici. A former co-worker says, "A large percentage of the [current] Congressional Budget Act [the law that governs the budget process] was written by Austin." Smythe, 48, left the committee in 1999 to join the D.C. office of Lehman Brothers, but he returned to government service as an adviser to the Bush presidential campaign in 2000. He joined the OMB staff in 2001. His public appearances generally involve standing next to the OMB director at annual budget briefings, correcting the director's math, and confirming key points, such as which funds are counted in the budget baseline and how employee pay increases have been factored into the budget estimates. Smythe is a South Carolina native who received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Texas (Austin).

Noam Neusner
Associate Director for Strategic Planning and Communications

Neusner says he enjoys shaping events more than reporting on them. After being a reporter at The Tampa Tribune and at Bloomberg News, he was a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report before moving to the White House in November 2002 to work as an economics speechwriter. In 2004, Bolten asked Neusner to head up OMB's press office. He and his staff tried to make the bulky budget books easier to understand. Neusner, 35, grew up in Providence, R.I., and graduated from Johns Hopkins University. He studied at Hebrew University in Israel, and he serves as a White House liaison to the Jewish community. He hasn't ruled out a return to journalism but says he's having fun on the other side.