Landrieu’s Procedural Politics Threaten Federal Budget Nomination at Critical Time

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the Obama administration’s moratorium on deep-water drilling Tuesday. That decision should have caused rejoicing not only in boardrooms of the world’s oil companies, but also in the halls of the Office of Management and Budget.

That’s because for three weeks Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has blocked a Senate vote on the confirmation of Jack Lew, President Barack Obama’s choice to head OMB after Peter Orszag’s departure. Landrieu said she was holding up Lew’s confirmation because of the administration’s moratorium and its “profound impact” on the Gulf Coast economy. Surely Landrieu will now permit her deficit-wracked country to have a budget chief.

Alas, that’s not how Mary Landrieu rolls.

“I am not going to release my hold on Jack Lew,” Landrieu said in a statement shortly after the ban was lifted. “Instead, I will take this time to look closely at how [the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement] is handling the issuing of permits and whether or not drilling activity in both shallow and deep water is resuming. When Congress reconvenes for the lame duck session next month, I will have had several weeks to evaluate if [Tuesday’s] lifting of the moratorium is actually putting people back to work.”

The Obama administration imposed the precautionary moratorium on offshore deep-water drilling in the wake of April’s BP oil disaster. CAP supported this action and has for years argued against the expansion of offshore drilling, which puts the environment at risk with virtually no benefit for American consumers.

Nonetheless, the moratorium has caused hardship for some: White House economists in September found that 2,000 of 9,700 workers at 46 offshore rigs lost their jobs or moved away from the gulf after the moratorium, while another 6,000 to 10,000 workers in associated industries also lost work. These job losses are lower than anticipated, but Landrieu is understandably worried about the moratorium’s economic consequences, which she contends the White House understates.

Her response, however, weakens the administration’s ability to address the nation’s profound economic and fiscal challenges. Stalling Lew’s confirmation—for a position with no direct jurisdiction over drilling—is an abuse of senatorial privilege.

Unwarranted holds like this have become an increasingly common political maneuver. Lew is one of dozens of Obama nominees awaiting a Senate vote, including recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics Peter Diamond, nominated in August for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board. Last February, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) placed a hold on every single one of the 80 administration appointees approved by Senate committees, citing the Obama administration’s alleged bias against Alabama when issuing grants and contracts.

CAP Senior Fellow Scott Lilly has called on Congress to enact modest procedural changes to curb such abuses of Senate confirmation powers.

Landrieu’s hold couldn’t come at a worse time. The OMB director presides over formulation of the president’s budget, which is now in full swing. In this role, he is not simply the bookkeeper, but an architect who develops and implements a strategy for economic growth.

With job creation weak, the administration must figure out how to pay for measures that will give private sector employment a much needed shot in the arm. Decisions must also be made over investments in infrastructure, human capital, and science and technology, which are critical to ensure America remains competitive and generates good jobs over the next decade.

And all of this must be done within severe budgetary constraints. President Obama has ordered each nonsecurity agency to submit a budget request 5 percent below last year’s discretionary total.

Lew will likely miss the first critical stage of the budget process if Landrieu maintains her hold until the lame duck session begins on November 15. Agencies have already submitted their initial 2012 budget requests, and OMB examiners are currently working with agency staff to begin formulating the president’s budget. Even if confirmed immediately, Lew would have to complete his review of examiner findings and finalize his official budget proposal by the end of November. That will be a tall order if he remains trapped in congressional limbo for much longer.

The Senate Budget Committee approved Lew’s nomination by a vote of 22-1, with yeas from every Republican on the panel. Such bipartisan support is unusual these days but not surprising in this case. Lew headed OMB from 1999 until the end of the Clinton administration in 2001, leaving office with a $200 billion federal budget surplus. Interim OMB Director Jeffrey Zients, a management specialist, has ably filled in since July, but the office needs a permanent leader with budget expertise.

Landrieu should end her frivolous hold on Lew’s confirmation. It’s time she let him get to work.

John Griffith is a Research Associate with the Doing What Works project at American Progress.