Goodbye Portman, Hello Nussle

“Train Wreck Jim” to Become OMB’s Conductor

Robb Portman left the OMB after Bush rejected his advice to veto the Military Construction appropriation bill, observes Scott Lilly.


The Director of the Office of Management and Budget is a key player in any administration, and there was every indication that Director Robb Portman would play an even greater role than most of his predecessors in the remaining months of the Bush administration. Passing over an array of pressing national issues, Bush chose to use his Saturday radio address a week ago to chastise the Democrats in Congress for the “excessive” spending in their budget resolution and promise vetoes for all or at least nearly all of the bills that exceeded his requested spending level.

An almost equally strong signal of Republican intentions came when Robert Novak’s column appeared in papers across the country two days later detailing the Republican war plans for the 12 appropriation bills. Novak announced in behalf of the White House, “Bush plans to veto the Homeland Security appropriations bill nearing final passage, followed by vetoes of eight more money bills sent him by the Democratic-controlled Congress.”

According to Novak, the president will sign only the Legislative Branch, Financial Services, and Military Construction-Veterans appropriation bills. All of the other bills have been targeted for vetoes and will become the object of protracted confrontations between Congress and the White House over spending priorities.

It is easy to see why the White House wants to focus public attention on issues other than those that have dominated the airwaves in recent weeks, namely the war in Iraq, the performance of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and the legal issues surrounding Vice President Cheney’s former aide-de-camp Scooter Libby.

Portman, well regarded by the press and politicians in both parties, seemed perfectly positioned to state the White House case on spending and at least partially shift the nation’s attention toward issues other than those that have plagued the White House in recent months. But to the surprise of nearly everyone, Portman announced on June 19 that he was resigning—only 14 months after accepting the job and with only 18 months remaining in the administration. The explanation was the conventional, “to spend more time with family” as well as hints that he may run for governor of Ohio in three years.

The real reason, however, may have more to do with the refusal of the White House to maintain what Portman considered a consistent position on the budget fight he was being asked to lead. For weeks, Portman had been attempting to draw a line in the sand on appropriation bills that exceeded the president’s request. The most problematic of those was the Military Construction and Veteran Affairs bill and particularly the portion of the bill dealing with VA medical care.

Portman felt he had provided adequately for veterans despite the criticisms of veterans groups and many in Congress More importantly, Portman recognized that the nearly $15 billion increase Congress was proposing for that bill, a 30 percent boost above last year’s level, represented nearly 40 percent of the annual growth in discretionary spending excluding the Defense appropriation bill.

But congressional Republicans refused to hold the line on veterans and in the end the president decided not to back Portman’s repeated veto threats on the Military Construction-Veterans appropriation measure. Instead, Bush instructed Portman to draft a Statement of Administration Policy for the bill that reiterated concerns about overall spending but failed to include even the boiler plate phrase “senior advisors would recommend that he president veto the bill” in its current form.

Portman, a former congressman, had spent enough years in the House to know that opposing the bill would be difficult. But he also knew the numbers well enough to know that any offensive against excess spending would have serious credibility problems if, as an opening shot, it turned a blind eye to 40 percent of the problem.

So Portman is gone and Jim Nussle has been nominated as his replacement. This transition has a number of significant downsides for the White House. The first is that Nussle is unlikely to be confirmed before the August congressional recess. That will leave OMB in the hands of an acting director and the administration without a high-profile spokesperson in the coming months on the issue that they clearly hope will dominate the airwaves and define the differences between themselves and the Congress.

But beyond that, the administration has lost a well-regarded and credible voice on budget matters and replaced him with an individual of significantly less standing. Even among many Republicans, Nussle is viewed as an ideologue and an obsessive self-promoter. His legislative record should give pause to anyone hoping that the 2008 budget cycle will end in constructive compromise.

During the six years he served as Chairman of the House Budget Committee he failed twice to reach agreement with the Senate on a joint resolution. A third agreement he forced on the Senate was so controversial that it barely cleared the House and was never called up for a vote in the Senate.

Even in the years that joint budget resolutions were adopted, the spending levels permitted for domestic programs were so draconian that the Republican leadership was forced for months to scour their caucus to find enough Republicans to pass the annual appropriation bills. During Nussle’s first year as chairman, in 2001, eight continuing or stop-gap resolutions had to be passed before all of the spending bills were in place, and a month into the new fiscal year not a single bill had passed.

Several of the larger bills were not enacted until January of the next year. The second year, 18 continuing resolutions were required and ultimately that train wreck was not cleared until 10 separate appropriation bills were crammed into an omnibus measure of well over 1,000 pages that was not enacted until February, 2003—five months into the new fiscal year.

Nussle’s latest train wreck began a year ago when he failed to find any way to reach compromise with his Senate counterpart, Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. As a result, the House and Senate proceeded through the appropriations process with two quite different sets of spending restraints—a fact that directly led to a near-total breakdown in the budget process, leaving the job of funding most of the federal government to the new Congress when it convened this past January.

Whether Nussle’s propensity for fiscal train wrecks proves to be good politics for the White House is a question that can’t be finally answered until this budget cycle is over. One thing, however, is clear: the White House will now face much greater difficulty feigning innocence when the train wreck occurs.


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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow