No sooner had the news of White House budget director Peter Orszag’s resignation hit the wires than a series of explanatory narratives emerged to accompany him out the door.
Complicated personal life, implied the Washington Post, recalling “the news that he had fathered a child with ex-girlfriend Claire Milonas, a Greek shipping heiress, and that he had become engaged to ABC News reporter Bianna Golodryga. Their wedding is planned for September.”
Move along please, nothing to see here, insisted the New York Times: “Orszag … somewhat reluctantly accepted Mr. Obama’s invitation to join the cabinet after the 2008 election and never planned to stay more than two years. Typically, budget directors do not.” Funny, we don’t recall hearing much about Mr. Orszag’s reluctance to accept the job at the time he was named to the post. It is true, though, that President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton each burned through four budget directors during their eight-year presidencies. (A seat at the table to anyone who can name all eight without looking them up on the Internets.)
Mr. Orszag “is likely to join a think tank, colleagues said,” reports Mike Allen of Politico. Mr. Allen doesn’t add it, but he’s also likely to try to monetize his experience some other way, either through paid speaking engagements, a book, a television deal, or a David Stockman-style magazine article.
Mickey Kaus, the blogger-turned-California Senate candidate-turned-blogger-again (he never really stopped being a blogger, actually), has been one of Mr. Orszag’s most persistent critics, coining the term Orszagism for the budget director’s approach of selling ObamaCare to Congress and the public as a way of reducing the federal budget deficit by bending the health care cost curve downward. The public had a hard time believing that you could provide health care to tens of millions more people without spending more money, and Mr. Kaus still doesn’t buy it, remarking that Mr. Orszag is “leaving before the curve hits the fan,” i.e., before it becomes clear that ObamaCare won’t actually save the federal government money, but will instead increase the size of the federal deficit.
Whatever the reason for Mr. Orszag’s departure, his successor will have to navigate a federal budget that is approaching a scary scenario in which investors lose confidence that America will be able to pay off its obligations without devaluing the dollar. As the University of Chicago’s John Cochrane put it in a recent paper: “Where is the fiscal limit? I don’t know. But there is a fiscal limit, and wherever it is, we are a few trillion dollars closer to it than we were last year, and we will be another few trillion dollars closer next year … it is closer than we think.”
That is the situation with which the next budget director will have to deal. A quick guide to a few of the more interesting names being dropped by what William Safire used to call The Great Mentioner:
Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is a “money liberal” who spent the 1990s predicting, totally incorrectly, that welfare reform would wreak havoc on the poor. He is a veteran of the Carter administration, which, unless your name is Paul Volcker, is usually enough said.
Gene Sperling, a current Treasury Department official who served in the Clinton administration, has the distinction of having spent at least part of the Bush years being paid $137,500 a year (or, to do the math, $11,458.33 a column, or, for an 800-word column, $14.32 a word) by Bloomberg News to write a monthly column while simultaneously, and without disclosing it to readers of the Bloomberg column, earning $887,727 a year for advising Goldman Sachs on its charitable giving.
Mr. Obama — and Congress — are leaving some of the heavy lifting on the budget to the Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, presumably to deflect some of the political flak over the eventual decision to raise taxes on those who aren’t “rich.” He could cut out the middleman by making the Democratic leader of the commission, Erskine Bowles, his budget director, but that would eliminate the plausible deniability when it comes time for Mr. Obama to break the no-tax-increases on the non-rich pledge more blatantly than he already has with the tobacco tax increase and the health-insurance mandate.
Congress is deferring to the commission so much that the House reportedly doesn’t even plan to pass a budget bill this year.
The thing to really remember about the budget director, though, is that he works for the president. In his book on President Kennedy, Richard Reeves recounts, “The first papers he saw from the Bureau of the Budget recorded expenditures in tenths of millions — $12.4 million was the standard style – and he sent them back saying he wanted the figures spelled out to $12,400,000. ‘I want every zero put in there,’ he said. ‘I want those guys to realize they’re spending real money.’”
In the end, what really changes the course of federal budgets is the election of presidents who submit them and Congresses who authorize and appropriate them, more than the bureaucrats who assist in devising and implementing them.