UW Law Lives in the Executive Office of the President

A headshot image of Anuj Desai
Anuj Desai

While many of us took a civics class in high school or perhaps an American government class in college, few have a clue about the inner workings of the federal government. Even fewer could tell you what goes on inside the Executive Office of the President.

But Anuj Desai, Volkman-Bascom professor of law at University of Wisconsin Law School, can.

Since September 2022, Desai has been working at the Office of the General Counsel in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), part of the Executive Office of the President.

“It’s safe to say OMB is the most important place that (a) nobody has ever heard of and (b) everyone thinks sounds very boring,” said Desai. “But it’s not. It’s a workhorse. There’s a ton happening here, including many of the things you see in the news. Some people say working at OMB is like living in the fast lane. One former director of OMB said that, no, it’s actually like living in the oncoming lane!”

So, what exactly does OMB do?

“It’s actually quite remarkable, the breadth of things that OMB does,” said Desai. “Every time any agency wants to do almost anything that’s moderately ‘important,’ it needs to get, in essence, clearance from OMB.”

One big thing OMB does is ensures that agencies are acting in ways that align with the president’s goals.

“In addition, OMB also serves as a coordinator within the federal government,” explained Desai. “For example, if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to implement a regulation about, say, wetlands or air quality standards, EPA sends it to OMB for what is known as ‘regulatory review.’ OMB will then send it out to all the other federal agencies to get their input. So, an environmental regulation might impact small businesses, and so the Small Business Administration will have a say. It turns out that much of what the federal government does involves the interests and expertise of a variety of different agencies. This kind of coordination is really the core of what OMB does. And lawyers are involved at every step of the way.”

It’s a “real delight” to see everything that comes through OMB.

But it’s just half of what OMB does, said Desai, and it’s the area he’s been most involved in. The other half, he explained, entails writing the president’s budget, helping to set the agenda of what agencies will have the resources to do. The government can’t possibly do everything, he explained, and the budget is an important way for a president to prioritize.

It’s a “real delight” to see everything that comes through OMB, said Desai.

“Pretty well any major regulation or rule that an agency wants to enact has to come through this office,” he continued. “Every single enrolled bill [a bill that has been passed by both houses of Congress before it gets either signed or vetoed by the president] comes through this office because it’s the office that advises the president to sign or veto the bill, and, if signed, what he will say about the bill. Every single Executive Order that the president signs goes through and is coordinated by this office. Every single Statement of Administration Policy [anytime the administration takes a position on a pending bill] comes through here. Every time someone from the administration is going to testify in Congress, the statement that that official makes before Congress and any answers to subsequent questions they’re asked, they all come to this office; again, partly for coordination.”

Someone in OMB is dealing with all these things as they come through, he said.

“It’s kind of exciting, quite frankly, to look at my email and see all the things the government is actually doing,” Desai continued.

That’s all he could say.

Desai will be working in the Executive Office of the President through the end of the academic year, May 2023.

By Kassandra Tuten