Obama's choice of a budget chief garners praise

The veteran analyst will know where to find and how to eliminate programs that don't work, president-elect says.

Promising a more efficient and effective government and an end to the "old ways of Washington," President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated the 39-year-old head of the Congressional Budget Office to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

Comment on this article in The Forum.During a brief press conference at the Chicago transition headquarters, Obama announced that he has selected Peter Orszag as OMB director. The move came as little surprise; Orszag's name had been circulating for a week. Rob Nabors, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, will serve as Orszag's deputy director.

"Peter doesn't need a map to tell him where the bodies are buried in the federal budget," Obama said. "He knows what works and what doesn't, what is worthy of our precious tax dollars and what is not. Just because a program, a special interest tax break or corporate subsidy is tucked into this year's budget does not mean it should survive the next. The old ways of Washington simply can't meet the challenges of today and tomorrow."

An expert on the rising costs of health care and the long-term fiscal future of Social Security, Orszag was appointed in January 2007 to a four-year term as director of CBO. The small 230-person agency provides objective, nonpartisan budget analysis to Congress.

Orszag served in several roles during the Clinton administration, including as senior economist at the President's Council of Economic Advisers and as special assistant to the president for economic policy.

Nabors joined the House Appropriations Committee in 2001. His responsibilities have included hiring and managing staff and recommending legislative strategies for discretionary spending. He previously served at OMB as senior adviser to the director and as assistant director for administration and executive secretary.

The appointments received accolades from leaders of key congressional panels.

"[Orszag] is a talented economist who has provided invaluable information and insight on the federal budget," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "He is highly regarded on both sides of the aisle. He has the rare gift of being able to translate complex economic and financial issues into clear, concise and understandable language. And his focus on addressing the growing cost of health care has demonstrated his firm grasp of the tremendous budget challenges our nation faces in the years ahead."

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., called Nabors a "first-rate addition" to Obama's team. "Rob Nabors has mastered both the process and substance of congressional appropriations," Spratt said. "While we will miss him in the House, I believe that Rob will strengthen the ties between Congress and OMB."

Republicans also were effusive in their praise for Orszag.

"I believe Dr. Orszag has proven his mettle as one of our nation's leading experts on the federal budget," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the ranking member of the House Budget Committee. "He and I have enjoyed a strong, productive working relationship, and I have been particularly impressed with his understanding of the looming entitlement crisis and the critical need for action."

Budget observers praised Orszag as a straight shooter known for fiscal honesty and a lack of partisanship.

"He is well-regarded as an analyst but familiar enough with the ways of Washington that he's not just a wonk," said Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy at the nonprofit OMB Watch. The group has sparred with OMB for much of the Bush administration.

Hughes expects the role of OMB director to become more prominent during the first two years of the new administration, as Obama's team combats the economic crisis.

Robert Greenstein, founder and executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said Orszag has intrinsic knowledge in a wealth of policy areas, from health care reform to climate change.

"This is an outstanding appointment," Greenstein said. "Peter has the potential to be one of the greatest OMB directors ever."

The new OMB team will have its hands full in the weeks and months ahead, Greenstein said. Among other things, the office will be responsible for guiding a new economic stimulus package through Congress and preparing Obama's first budget, which will be due in early spring.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Obama began to sketch the budget priorities of his new administration, as well as an overall strategy for government management. He explained that OMB will not only design and implement a budget, but will ensure that government "is more efficient and more effective at serving the American people."

The president-elect repeated his pledge to go through the federal budget page by page and line by line, eliminating unnecessary programs and insisting that others operate more cost effectively.

"This isn't about big government or small government," Obama said. "It's about building a smarter government that focuses on what works. That is why I will ask my team to think anew and act anew to meet our new challenges."

Vowing to restore discipline to the budget, Obama said the government must be willing to shed unwarranted spending. As an example, he pointed to a report released on Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office that noted farmers making more than $2.5 million annually had received $49 million in crop subsidies from 2003 to 2006.

"We cannot sustain a system that bleeds billions of taxpayer dollars on programs that have outlived their usefulness, or exist solely because of the power of a politician, lobbyist or interest group," Obama said. "We simply cannot afford it."

Obama has yet to name the top management official at OMB. Since 2001, that role has been filled by Clay Johnson, who is responsible for overseeing a handful of administrative offices such as the procurement policy shop, as well as implementing President Bush's government reform agenda.