A patriot passes on

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 Act.

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).

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