The vaporous case against Neera Tanden for OMB director

It’s hard to see how anyone would win by blocking her

The logic governing opposition by progressives to Neera Tanden is shaky, Shapiro writes. Above, Tanden speaks at a pro-impeachment rally on Capitol Hill in December 2019. (Larry French/Getty Images for MoveOn.org file photo)
The logic governing opposition by progressives to Neera Tanden is shaky, Shapiro writes. Above, Tanden speaks at a pro-impeachment rally on Capitol Hill in December 2019. (Larry French/Getty Images for MoveOn.org file photo)
Posted December 1, 2020 at 6:00am

Believe it or not, some forms of governmental controversy predate Donald Trump.

In fact, there is no more telling sign that Joe Biden is restoring normalcy than the fact that one of his Cabinet-level picks is already in trouble.

Biden’s choice of Neera Tanden for the director of the Office of Management and Budget has sparked opposition from both Senate Republicans and left-wing Democrats.

A longtime Hillary Clinton aide, Tanden heads the Center for American Progress, a leading Democratic establishment think tank. She is simultaneously attacked by the GOP for being too aggressive a partisan warrior and by progressives for having been too accommodating with Republicans on issues like Social Security.

In truth, Tanden boasts the two skills most needed in an incoming OMB director — a far-reaching understanding of how the federal government works and the trust of the president-elect.

As a result, it is hard to see how anyone would win by blocking her.

If Tanden’s nomination were withdrawn, Biden would replace her with another knowledgeable mainstream Democrat. It’s not like the Republicans would be rewarded with the second coming of Mick Mulvaney as OMB director.

The logic governing the opposition of left-wing Democrats to Tanden is even shakier. In the progressive newsletter “The Daily Poster,” Walker Bregman writes, “Tanden touted her think tank’s 2010 proposal to reduce Social Security benefits in 2012, as Biden was pushing for such cuts in the Obama administration.”

Get the smelling salts. Shockingly enough, Tanden a decade ago had roughly the same position on Social Security as Biden, who just named her for OMB director.

Yes, there will be a coming (warning: cliché ahead) battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. But that needs to come later. Right now, it is in the interest of all Democrats for Biden to succeed as he confronts both a pandemic and a virus-ravaged economy.

Lightning rod

Traditionally, blocking a high-profile nominee has been a power play by either the Senate or a faction of the incoming president’s party. But it seems unlikely that voters of any political persuasion will be galvanized by a struggle over the identity of the OMB director.

OMB has never been a steppingstone to electoral power, even though Ohio Sen. Rob Portman did serve as director under George W. Bush.

It remains odd that suddenly OMB has become such a lightning rod.

In his waning days in power, Trump signed an executive order creating a new top-level classification of career civil servants known as Schedule F. The “F” apparently stands for “fired” since it would make it much easier to remove formerly protected government employees.

Such a Trump purge would devastate OMB, where nearly 90 percent of all employees would be classified as Schedule F. Any action like this would be part of Trump’s scorched-earth resistance to Biden since the executive order would be immediately rescinded by the new president.

Like most Trump tantrums, this one makes no sense.

Without the respected professional staff at OMB, the Biden administration would be free to make any claims — no matter how outlandish — about the budgetary effects of its policy proposals. The only resistance would come from the Congressional Budget Office rather than anyone in the executive branch.

Even more devastating to GOP priorities would be eviscerating OMB’s ability to approve federal regulations before they are issued. Do Republicans really want every assistant secretary in the Biden administration to write regulations without any internal review?

From tragedy to farce

Viewed in hindsight, some failed prior Cabinet appointees represent tragedy and others are closer to farce.

Bernie Kerik, tapped by George W. Bush as his second-term Homeland Security secretary, fits into the farcical category. Kerik — a Rudy Giuliani crony and former New York police commissioner — withdrew his nomination over allegations of accepting illegal gifts while police commissioner.

In 2009, Kerik was sent to prison on related federal charges of tax fraud and making false statements. As an apparent favor to Giuliani, Trump pardoned Kerik earlier this year.

Much closer to tragedy was the ill-fated nomination of Zoë Baird as Bill Clinton’s first attorney general. Baird’s sin, immortalized as “Nannygate,” was hiring two undocumented workers to provide child care.

In the innocent context of 1993, this was a jaw-dropping scandal. Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was attacked for his failure to warn Clinton of any problems with Baird’s nomination. As a New York Times editorial thundered, “If Mr. Biden had recognized the devastating symbolism of the prospective Attorney General deliberately breaking the law … he could have alerted the Democratic President-elect.”

Eventually, after another failed nomination, Clinton chose Janet Reno. In April 1993, Reno approved the tragic raid by government agents on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that left about 80 cult members dead.

Had the cautious Baird been attorney general, it is unlikely that she would have authorized the Waco raid or believed governmental assurances that the holdouts would be routed by tear gas alone.

In 2009, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle bombed out as Barack Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services secretary over his delay in paying $128,000 in taxes related to the use of a donated car and driver.

The history of Obamacare might have been far different if the politically artful Daschle, who knew Capitol Hill and Washington, had been the HHS secretary rather than former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Undocumented child care workers and an ill-advised tax return. These were the issues that jeopardized the opening months of the last two Democratic presidencies.

Even by these standards, the case against Neera Tanden is comically weak. It all comes down to mean partisan tweets and following the Obama administration’s lead on Social Security.

It all seems so vaporous — and so refreshingly normal.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.