When the Senate returns from the August break next week they are expected to take up the confirmation of former Congressman Jim Nussle as Director of the Office of Management. Many students of American government argue that the president should almost always get his way when it comes to selection of key White House advisors. I would normally agree. But we are in extraordinary times, and Jim Nussle is in many respects an extraordinarily bad fit for the position for which he has been asked to serve. The Senate should therefore ask President Bush to find an alternative to the Nussle appointment.
The times are extraordinary in part because the relationship that should exist between the executive and the legislative branches of our government is in tatters. The notion that senior White House advisors should not be subjected to the same scrutiny as other appointed officials is rooted in a vision of our system of government in which the two branches respect each other’s constitutional authority and responsibility. Unfortunately, that is not the model the Bush administration has chosen to follow. Its constant assaults on the rights and prerogatives of the legislative branch can be ignored only by placing our entire system of checks and balances at risk. Comity between the branches is important, but it must be mutual.
Even if the relations between the branches were far better, Nussle’s appointment would be highly problematic. There is nothing that our government does each year that is more important than setting the budget for the coming year. It is a complex and tedious process and it requires people of very different regional, economic, and ideological backgrounds to compromise with one another. It’s difficult work, but it is work that our leaders in the Congress and the executive branch have managed to complete throughout most of our nation’s history.
When we have failed, the entire nation has been placed in a state of gridlock. Resources have not been allocated to meet emerging threats. Delays in providing funds have caused them to be inefficiently administered even when their purpose was well-considered. Compromise is not easy and it is often not pretty. But it is what allows a nation that spans more than a quarter of the earth’s circumference and contains citizens of nearly every ethnic heritage to function together as one people and move forward.
The Director of the Office of Management and Budget performs a number of critical roles. He oversees the regulatory activities of the federal government. He examines the administrative efficiency of the various agencies and departments and recommends methods of improving their performance. But by far the most important job is reaching accommodation with the Congress on the annual budget. When he or she fails in that responsibility every service for which we depend on our government, ranging from the safety of our food to the protection of our shores and the health of our children, suffers.
One could scarcely imagine any individual less prepared and less capable of performing that role. Nussle’s record in public life is a vivid portrait of an intractable ideologue who repeatedly failed to achieve the work product for which he was responsible because of his incapacity to understand the perspective of others and seek common ground that would provide the basis for consensus. This failure came not simply when Nussle confronted liberals and members of the opposite party, but when he was charged with developing a compromise position with other conservatives and members of his own party.
Congress failed to adopt a Joint Budget Resolution in three of the six years that Nussle served as chairman of the House Budget Committee. To place the magnitude of that failure in context, Congress has passed a Joint Budget Resolution in every other year since the passage of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act except one.
During his last year as budget chairman, Nussle was unable to develop sufficient consensus within the House Republican Conference to bring a resolution to the House floor until May 18—more than two months after a final version of the resolution would have had to have passed the House in order to meet the April 15 statutory deadline for adoption of a Conference Report in both houses. But that is as much progress as Nussle was able to make. He and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, a fiscally conservative Republican from New Hampshire, could not find any common ground, and by July the House-Senate Conference Committee gave up trying to reach any type of an agreement.
Nussle went through a similar debacle in 2004 when, after seven weeks of acrimonious negotiations between Nussle and Sen. Don Nichols of Oklahoma (R-OK), another conservative Republican, Nichols threw up his hands and accepted an agreement that he later found could not muster the votes to pass in the Senate.
Even in the three years that Nussle was able to get budget resolutions adopted, the resolutions were so extreme that it was extremely difficult to get enough support within his own party to pass the annual appropriation bills. At no time during Nussle’s tenure as chairman were all of the appropriation bills enacted within 60 days of the beginning of the fiscal year, the date upon which they should be enacted. In three of the six years, final appropriation measures were not even adopted in the same session of Congress that the budget resolution was considered and had to wait until the following January for passage. During Nussle’s chairmanship, the Congress was forced to adopt a total of 37 continuing resolutions in order to simply keep the government open—an average of more than six per year.
The president understandably wants a strong voice to speak out on behalf of his priorities and oppose expenditures that he deems of lower priority. He deserves no less. But he also needs someone with proven skills in reaching compromises that bridge the wide partisan, institutional, and ideological divisions that divide this government. Jim Nussle is clearly not that person.
The train wreck that Nussle is likely to create will, like the train wrecks he has created in the past, have implications that extend well beyond partisan politics. It will delay needed funding, create chaos and, inevitably, waste and mismanagement in large portions of the government. It will aggravate any sincere efforts to bring the two branches of government together on common policies needed for the benefit of the American people. The country is facing too many crises that are unavoidable to create one that never need happen.