Sources: Swagel to Replace Hall as CBO Director

May 15, 2019by Paul Krawzak

WASHINGTON — Senate and House budget leaders have chosen Phillip L. Swagel, a University of Maryland economist and former Treasury official in the George W. Bush administration, as the next director of the Congressional Budget Office, according to several sources with knowledge of the discussions.

Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi spearheaded the selection and is expected to announce the appointment later this week.

Swagel will replace Keith Hall, the current CBO director whose four-year term officially ended Jan. 3. Hall continued on in a temporary capacity while Budget Committee leaders in both chambers deliberated on his successor.

Enzi and the other three panel leaders — House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth and ranking member Steve Womack; and Senate Budget ranking member Bernie Sanders — considered several candidates for the post over the past several weeks, people with knowledge of the process said.

Swagel currently serves as professor of international economic policy at the university’s School of Public Policy. He is also a nonresident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Swagel has extensive experience in the executive branch, including serving as assistant secretary for economic policy at Treasury under Bush. During that stint between 2006 and 2009, he was a member of the Troubled Asset Relief Program investment committee and was responsible for analysis of issues including housing, financial markets, health care, pensions and macroeconomic forecasts, according to a biography on his university webpage.

He previously worked as chief of staff and a senior economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Bush, and was an economist at the International Monetary Fund and the Federal Reserve Board.

The CBO director is required under law to be appointed “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of his fitness to perform his duties.”

Keith Hennessey, who also worked in the Bush White House, called Swagel a “terrific pick to run CBO.”

“His intellect, professionalism and demeanor are perfect for CBO,” said Hennessey, who served as director of the National Economic Council under Bush. “Most importantly, he is intellectually honest and will tell hard truths to legislators, whether they want to hear them or not.”

Under budget law, the CBO director is appointed by the speaker and the president pro tempore of the Senate — currently Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, respectively — after considering recommendations from the House and Senate Budget committees. There’s no need for Senate confirmation.

In practice, the decision is made by the Budget chairmen with some input from House and Senate leaders. Under an informal arrangement, the lead role in making the selection alternates between the House and Senate Budget chairs. Then-House Budget Chairman Tom Price took the lead in choosing Hall last time, sending the lead role to the Senate this time.

Hall had expressed a desire to be reappointed to the CBO director post for another term, according to a source familiar with the discussions, but Enzi ultimately opted to go in a different direction.

The Wyoming Republican valued transparency and disclosure at the CBO, something Hall actively tried to promote during his tenure at the agency. Nonetheless, over time Enzi had grown dissatisfied with the level of communication and updates he was getting from the CBO under Hall’s leadership, according to the source.

While it wasn’t clear Tuesday what Enzi’s specific complaints were, the CBO operates under rules that require it to keep certain information confidential. That includes informal, preliminary estimates that the agency provides at the request of committee staff, allowing the consideration of different approaches before a specific legislative path is chosen.

Enzi’s office did not respond to questions about Swagel. Efforts to reach Swagel on Tuesday night were unsuccessful.

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