Skip to main content

One to Watch in the Chief of Staff Changeover: Heather Higginbottom

WASHINGTON – She delivered a wonky speech at the recent White House Tribal Nations Conference, saying that Indians need to be prepared for a tough federal budget climate in coming months. Now she’s in line to become one of the most important Obama administration budgetary players. Meet Heather Higginbottom, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

When the financial guru met with tribal leaders at the introductory session of the December 2 meeting at the headquarters of the U.S. Department of the Interior, she came across as bookish, impressing some gathered for President Barack Obama’s grand meeting with her willingness to tell it like it is.

There, Higginbottom said that the president’s fiscal year 2013 budget, to be released this February, would build on already successful programs in Indian country, including some of those at the Interior, Health & Human Services, and Housing & Urban Development Departments. Specifically, she said that the administration would “maximize resources and minimize costs,” which hypothetically means that OMB rules could allow for greater flexibility to tribes in how their federal dollars can be spent. Whether that will play out remains to be seen.

While Higginbottom did not appear overly familiar with Indian country affairs, tribal leaders knew that she was important to have at the meeting due to her position, given her possible ability to influence budgetary matters impacting tribes and Indians. The hope was largely that concerns about trust responsibility and federal obligations to Indians called for in the Constitution would become all the more apparent to her as she spent some time acquainting herself with the gathered representatives of hundreds of sovereign nations.

This week, Higginbottom’s understanding became all the more important on January 9 when William Daley unexpectedly announced his departure as White House Chief of Staff, and Obama selected Higginbottom’s boss, Jack Lew, to replace him. In short, her connection to and familiarity with Indian country budgetary matters quickly became an important undercurrent to tribes and some of their lobbyists in Washington in no small part because her name is being bounced around as a possible successor to Lew, the current budget director.

For Indian country, Lew’s background made him an attractive holder of the position. He became head of the OMB at the end of the Clinton era, and he had been with the agency and the Clinton administration for most of President Bill Clinton’s two terms in office. That means Lew was in charge of the famous executive order on tribal consultation issued by President Bill Clinton in November 2000, which the Obama administration continues to implement after a lack of attention under the Bush administration. The Clinton proposed FY 2001 budget, which Lew oversaw, also included substantial increases for Indian country as part of Clinton’s Native American initiative. Lew was also around for all of the major meeting Clinton held with tribal representatives.

Higginbottom, meanwhile, is at an earlier phase in her career. Born in 1972, she previously served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Obama administration after serving in the president’s 2008 election campaign. From 1999 to 2007, she served as legislative director for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and she worked on his election campaigns.

To date, Republicans haven’t liked what they’ve seen from Higginbottom. In fact, Senate GOPers united against her nomination to her current position, citing a “lack of business and accounting experience.” Even with this obstacle, the full Senate voted to confirm her in a 64-36 vote on October 20.

The resentment lingers. Already, conservative bloggers are warning Obama not to select Higginbottom to fill Lew’s position: “Whether President Obama will deny his current deputy director of OMB Heather Higginbottom the role of acting director remains to be seen,” writes Wynton Hall at Andrew Breitbart’s “But if Mr. Obama does, expect Republicans to use her appointment as further evidence of President Obama’s budgetary incompetence and rudderless fiscal leadership.”

No one knows for sure if Higginbottom will be a friend to Indian country if she is selected for the top budgetary position, but this much is already certain: Republicans are going to fight her tooth and nail.