A patriot passes on
- By Bruce McConnell
- Dec 10, 2000
Robert Damus, a longtime civil servant and the general counsel at the Office
of Management and Budget, died of a heart attack Nov. 29. The health of
the republic is the worse for this most untimely loss.
OMB is the quintessential inside-the-Beltway player, its central role
and influence poorly understood by most citizens. Furthermore, OMB's general
counsel's office is inside the inside, working almost solely with other
agencies' counsels, the General Accounting Office and congressional staff.
The general counsel pays the rent by aiding negotiations between agency
authorities in draft executive orders, serving as the executive branch expert
on appropriations law and managing the interpretation of OMB's own statutes,
such as the Privacy Act, the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Clinger-Cohen
As part of OMB's career staff, the general counsel also serves as institutional
memory in the Executive Office of the President. Virtually everyone leaves
the White House during a presidential transition, but the counsel remains.
Gone are the occupants of the Office of the Chief of Staff, the National
Economic Council and other policy and coordination offices in the Old Executive
Office Building. Gone as well are OMB's director, the administrator of procurement
policy and the associate directors for budget. The new president and his
staff enter the White House with often-limited context and experience in
the intricacies of governing at the national level.
Great are the expectations of the new office, and soon, great will be
the frustrations of the new team as it begins to tangle with federal bureaucracy.
Myriad Lilliputian strings seem to tie up every action. Personnel appointments,
procurements, recordkeeping, even building security all seem ridiculously
complicated and slow to a team that spent much of the previous 18 months
barnstorming the country.
In these times especially, it falls to the OMB counsel to say, "No,
the law does not permit it." But the job is more difficult, and the answer
often more subtle, along the lines of, "No, because that course of action
will create a precedent that will come back to haunt you, or to haunt a
future president." And it was in protecting the presidency by making this
kind of argument that Bob Damus excelled.
Saying no to the boss is not a fun job. Damus never pulled a punch or
flinched. He cleanly, and with the necessary forcefulness, made the arguments
by the clearest lights he knew, based on a deep appreciation for the Constitution
and a reverence for the presidency, its history and the independence of
the executive branch.
This role is not one that wins friends. But it did win Damus a great
deal of respect and admiration among the career staff at OMB, and though
grudging at times from the political staff in the White House, brought
to their better senses by Bob's dry, ironic way.
The new president will miss the benefit of Bob's advice. We all shall.
McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office
of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).