As Washington obsesses over polls, fundraising and closing campaign messages, a high-stakes legislative battle is waiting on the other side of the midterm elections.
Lawmakers will have a little more than a month to reach an agreement to fund the government, with officials on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue keenly aware that the election results – and the spending wars they could portend in the years ahead – elevate the stakes of a process that is rarely without drama or risks.
For President Joe Biden, that means Shalanda Young will once again take center stage.
From her perch atop the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Young is viewed inside and outside the administration as an unquestioned, if quiet, force inside the administration, according to White House officials and lawmakers from both parties.
More than a decade at the center of deal-making on major spending and legislative agreements have given Young an innate sense of how to operate in the most tense situations – someone with a keen sense of the pressure points and levers to guide a process perpetually on the on the brink of disaster.
“She can cut through all of the, as Joe Biden would say, ‘malarkey,’ and get to the heart of the issue,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and senior member of the Appropriations panel, told CNN in an interview. “She understands that members are going to have policy concerns, that we are going to have parochial interests – and that many of us want to get to an outcome.”
That Young leads an agency little known outside of Washington, even as it holds immense authority and the tools to quietly make or break legislative deals and policy agendas, is apt. That description may as well describe Young.
To be clear, she wouldn’t describe herself that way. Even as a Cabinet-level official deeply intertwined in every major policy issue across the administration, it’s not easy to find her name in the press generally. That’s not an accident. But more than a two-dozen senior White House advisers, Cabinet officials, Republican and Democratic lawmakers all echoed Collins’ assessment of Young in conversations with CNN over the last several months.
That widely held opinion in Washington is a reflection of her past and present.
There are the years on the staff House Appropriations Committee, capped by a tenure as the powerful panel’s staff director and clerk, which put her at the center of major appropriations, disaster aid and unprecedented emergency spending measures to the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are the months putting out legislative and regulatory fires inside the administration, utilizing the full breadth of the resources at OMB, an entity known as the very cliché but accurate nerve center of the federal government.
Keenly aware of the personalities and dynamics that drive Biden’s White House, there appears to be little effort to take credit for those either.
OMB’s unique place at the heart of government gives its director a unique ability to reach across the administration to address regulatory and policy concerns lawmakers have outside of the actual legislative process. Several lawmakers who spoke to CNN relayed various issues they’d raised with Young over the last year at various agencies, nearly all of which had been resolved.
Yet when one close Biden adviser was asked about the process to reach those outcomes, the question was first met with silence. Then a short chuckle.
“I guess I don’t have specific examples because Shalanda solves all of those problems,” the adviser finally said.
Yet her current role – and the history she represents as the first Black woman to hold the position – was hardly pre-ordained.
Young entered the administration expecting to serve as OMB’s deputy director, only to find herself in the top job when Biden’s first pick fell short of the votes needed for confirmation.
She faced her own dramatic personal transition at home. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone watching, Young was in her first weeks of pregnancy during her March confirmation for the deputy position. She would give birth to her first child, her daughter Charlie, in October 2021.
Throughout, she was left in the role of “acting” director, an often-tenuous position for any Cabinet-level official, particularly one transitioning from a career staff role to principal – and inside a team led by an exceedingly tight-knit and small group of senior advisers with years of experience by Biden’s side.
Lobbying from the highest levels of Capitol Hill, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wasn’t enough to speed up a process that one Democratic lawmaker called “pure bulls—.”
Whatever Young’s personal opinion of the limbo may have been, she wasn’t behind or connected to any push, people familiar with the matter said. Instead, she just did the job.
“Obviously she wanted it, she deserved it and there’s nobody more qualified,” the lawmaker said. “But her response is to do the work – and do it better than anyone else.”
Making Biden’s priorities a legislative reality
Tucked into Biden’s sweeping September remarks detailing the ambitious goals of his Cancer Moonshot effort was a statement that gave a window into the belief behind the aspiration.
“When President Kennedy called for a moonshot, we didn’t have all the tools and experience needed,” Biden said at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, 60 years to the day from Kennedy’s famous moonshot speech. “With our Cancer Moonshot, today we do.”
A centerpiece of the tools the President would go on to detail was an agency modeled after the Pentagon’s DARPA program, a research and development hub that has driven transformational technology breakthroughs for decades.
For Biden, whose son Beau died of the disease and has told personal friends’ part of the reason he ran for president was to fight cancer, creating an agency that could drive similar innovations to fight disease represented what one White House official called “a critical priority bordering on passion.”
Six months before Biden took the stage in Boston, it was up to Young to deliver that priority.
ARPA-H didn’t actually exist, at least not anywhere outside of Biden’s voluminous budget proposal and his speeches touting its merit. Its creation was caught firmly in the partisan, policy and parochial tornado that defines Capitol Hill’s annual funding process.
Young had been explicit with congressional leaders and appropriators that the agency – and a substantial chunk of funding to get it started – were a necessity. The key players signaled they understood, but as the marathon days of negotiations neared their deadline, the funding sat at $500 million.
That wasn’t going to cut it – a message delivered in what one senior Democratic congressional aide described as “pretty blunt fashion” by Young to leaders. She needed $1 billion.
The message wasn’t one of frustration or desperation. Instead, it was carefully calibrated and timed – a vivid example of one piece in an all-consuming, all-encompassing negotiation that is far more art than science. It is, for lack of a more official term, the rhythm of coming up with a spending deal.
No spending major negotiation is the same. There will always be different bottlenecks, different parochial issues, different policy priorities – even different lawmakers – that threaten to bring the whole thing crashing down.
What’s consistent is the rhythm. It’s an innate sense of when to let lawmakers push, and when to push back. When to give them space to launch rhetorical broadsides and political attacks, and when to shut it down. When to tack on one more priority and when a single dollar or provision more is going to sink the whole deal.
When to let things breathe and linger and when to close the deal.
Young’s message, delivered to players intimately aware of the rhythm and her skill at finding it, signaled it was time to close the deal.
“The nuts and bolts of like how appropriators work, how leadership works and her sense of timing on all those pieces is invaluable,” Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs whose team has worked hand-and-glove with Young since she arrived at OMB, said in an interview.
The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill Biden signed into law days later included the creation of ARPA-H. It would start its existence with $1 billion in congressional funding – something Biden made a point of highlighting at length during his remarks at the signing.
He also made a point of inviting Young by name to join lawmakers on stage as he signed the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, pulled Young up to the front of the group to make sure she received Biden’s pen.
Senators would vote on her historic confirmation as director of OMB a few hours later.
‘She’s just a no BS-er’
Young didn’t grow up aiming to reach the highest levels of the US government.
She certainly didn’t envision a career defined by the appropriations and budget process. When talking to younger staffers, particularly those of color who view her as an inspiration on Capitol Hill, Young is fond of noting that it’s not as if there’s some university major on the federal budget.
But she also never felt a sense of limitations as she grew up in Clinton, Louisiana, a town roughly 30 miles from Baton Rouge that had fewer than 2,000 residents when Young was in elementary school.
The reason is in part that she grew up in a family that, through generations, prioritized education. The driver of that, in Young’s case, was her grandmother and mom.
“I felt like I was around a bunch of special women for a long time,” Young told CNN.
Mary Lee Wilson, Young’s grandmother, played on Southern University’s first women’s basketball team and was inducted into the historically Black university’s hall of fame when Young was in high school.
Now 94, Wilson remains a formative – and forceful – figure in Young’s life, as does her home state.
She keeps three Zulu coconuts, one of the most prized of all Mardi Gras throws, in her equal parts ornate and cavernous office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which sits about 20 yards away from the West Wing.
It’s more than nostalgia for Young, who arrived at the House Appropriations Committee as Congress was still grappling with the catastrophic results of Hurricane Katrina – an issue she became a critical player in managing by creating the space for legislative solutions, former staff members said.
It was a critical experience for Young, who helped guide disaster relief efforts on Capitol Hill for years and now finds herself in a similar role in the administration, under a President who allows few, if any, mistakes when it comes to the government’s critical response role.
It’s also a window into an element of her approach that lawmakers and officials point to repeatedly as her most valuable asset: Her ability to deal with lawmakers, regardless of party or priority.
“A large portion of it is just her,” said Rob Nabors, the staff director of the committee when Young was hired in 2007, in an interview. “A secondary component of it is where she grew up politically.”
Through more than a decade of the political and legislative environment growing increasingly toxic and zero-sum, the Appropriations committees have remained an island of actual deal making, populated by staffers with decades of experience between them and unparalleled institutional and policy knowledge to match.
“They’re the last place where work actually gets done on the Hill,” Nabors said. “There’s the old adage that there are Republicans, Democrats and Appropriators. The way she approaches issues is as an appropriator.”
Still, as much as her experience guides her approach, it’s also one tied into an acute sense of players themselves.
As Collins, who is in line to be the top Republican on Appropriations next year, put it, Young has “an in-depth understanding of members of Congress, of the appropriations process and of what matters to us.”
Shortly after she started in the administration, Young was on the phone to set up a meeting with Collins. It’s a critical relationship that will only grow more essential for the White House in the months ahead – especially if Republicans win the majority, making Collins the next chairwoman.
Collins is fond of pointing out that in the next Congress, it’s likely the top four lawmakers on the appropriations panels – the powerful “four corners” in congressional lexicon – will all be women. But she’s quick to remind anyone who might forget that there’s a fifth seat at the table in the group that will guide the potentially treacherous spending talks ahead. That would be Young.
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican who introduced Young at her first confirmation hearing, recalled receiving a note from a long-time Republican staffer shortly beforehand, effusive in its praise for her approach.
He also ticked off a series of Young’s supporters representing wildly different places on the political spectrum.
“Either we’re in some sort of weird space and time continuum or the nominee is exceptionally capable,” Cassidy said with a chuckle. “Because she’s from Louisiana, I know it’s the latter – she is exceptionally capable.”
The attention to detail, and recognition that there is no such thing as a zero-sum win in negotiations that will take place all over again in the months or years ahead, results in an element so often missing in Washington: Trust.
“Members really feel like they can pick up the phone and get a genuine answer from her,” Terrell said. “She’s just a no BS-er.”
It’s a personal approach drawn in part from the reality that, as Young has told colleagues, she’s already far exceeded any goals she could’ve set as a young girl in Clinton.
She’s been in the most consequential meetings, deep into the night in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, as the world economy hangs in the balance. Visits to the Oval Office to brief the leader of the free world are quite literally part of the job now.
That, to some degree, helps simplify things in a way that would seem basic or even naïve – if it hadn’t proven to be relentlessly effective.
“I try to normalize everything,” Young said. “Everyone here is a human being.”
An unseen power
As Biden gathered his cabinet officials in the early month of his presidency, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had a piece of advice for his new Labor Department counterpart, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
Vilsack, who also served atop the Agriculture Department under President Barack Obama, advised Walsh of the two most important people in the room. He pointed first to Biden. Then he pointed to Young, who at that point was still in an “acting” role as director.
It was a moment that crystalized the largely unseen power of OMB in any administration, one that Young has wielded in a carefully calibrated, and personally deliberate, fashion.
“She’s fair and she’s tough,” Walsh said in an interview with CNN.
He recounted his push for additional funding for his department in Biden’s most recent budget, a push that was ultimately unsuccessful. “She drew the line and said this is what you need to come in at,” Walsh said.
But in a relationship built first through a lunch that focused equal parts on the budget process and family, then regular phone calls, the outcome didn’t draw animosity.
Young had delivered similar messages across the administration, and there were no surprises.
“She just makes it easy to communicate,” Walsh said, in a nod to what several officials noted is an underappreciated quality in a federal government that can too easily devolve into turf wars and backbiting between agency heads and inside the West Wing. “She’s not going to let any foolishness happen.”
Young’s approach to Walsh and other cabinet secretaries tracked with her similar efforts inside the administration, where Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff called her “a critical member of our senior team” who closely identified with Biden’s regular public – and private – efforts to connect policy proposals and choices directly to the people they would affect.
“This stuff is not theoretical or an abstraction to her and she shares that laser focus with the President,” Klain said.
But it was the consummate staffer approach that paid dividends in a White House with a senior team packed with long-time Biden hands. That approach can also pay dividends with a boss who served 36 years in the Senate.
“People who have a respect for and deep understanding of the Hill do better here,” one senior White House official said.
She reached out to powerful long-time Biden advisers Bruce Reed and Steve Ricchetti, among others, in a subtle yet clear effort to quickly capture the workflow and way of presenting options that aligned with Biden’s team, multiple White House officials observed.
She watched how Biden operated – and how he made decisions. Young ingratiated herself through her ability to present, in the words of one official, “crisp and clear options.”
When it came to budget and appropriations issues, Young became the critical voice inside the team.
“The president and Ron have really come to rely on her judgment to know when and in what context to engage with members,” National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said in an interview.
Young and Terrell, without an official roadmap or strategy directing them to do so, quickly moved to tightly coordinate their teams and efforts on Capitol Hill. The two are in constant contact, officials say, passing along conversations with members or gaming out strategies or potential hurdles.
She attended Deese’s weekly economic team principals meetings, along with Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
The group has spearheaded Biden’s sweeping economic policy response to an array of constantly shifting pandemic-era challenges and crises, with Young deeply involved on another critical White House team.
Though in a rare occasion of disrupting the flow, she was the reason the meetings have trended more toward lunch than the initially planned breakfasts, according to a senior White House official.
The reason why didn’t draw any objections, however, particularly from senior officials who say they’ve felt a part of Young’s experience as a new mom. Morning meetings, after all, get a little more complicated when daycare drop-off enters the occasion.
Young had always planned to be a mother. That she was newly pregnant when Biden tapped her for the administration did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for the moment.
For an official who had a reputation of always being available, always ready to hop on the phone at any moment, a newborn would seem to create some clear challenges.
And while Young’s colleagues marvel at her balancing act, behind the scenes it’s less seamless in ways any parent can identify with.
“It required me to say words I do not say: I need help,” Young said.
Still, Young spent her first year of motherhood shaping Biden’s budget and appropriations policy, quarterbacking the administration’s disaster relief efforts, guiding the process to direct billions to assist Ukraine in its war with Russia and helping to clinch, and then implement, the bipartisan infrastructure law.
“If juggling all that does not prove she’s more than qualified for the job, I’m not sure what would,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said as she moved through the confirmation process to be director earlier this year.
Two days after Biden signed the last spending bill into law, her daughter, Charlie, was a few feet away as Young stood across from Vice President Kamala Harris with her hand on the Bible.
The toddler appeared a little distracted by the giant mirror, framed in ornate gold, that hung behind her mother. But as Young said the words clinching history as the first Black woman to lead the agency, Charlie turned her way, wide eyed, but perfectly content.
Charlie turns one on Halloween, just a few days before her mom’s job is about to once again become among the most important in Washington.
Planning is underway and strategy memos are circulating for a White House team that may need to confront the last major spending negotiation before Republicans take over one or both chambers of Congress.
“There’s a big challenge on the horizon right now,” one senior White House official said.
It’s a fluid and complex dynamic, one with a tight timeline on top of everything else. But officials say that won’t move them from their intent to lock in another omnibus spending agreement.
They point to the spending deal Biden signed this past March, one that included a series of major wins on domestic spending, as well as key priorities like the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that were added on, as evidence that there is a pathway.
It’s not just that the bill got done, several note. It’s how it happened.
The day after it cleared Congress, Klain convened his daily 8:20 a.m. senior staff meeting. He congratulated Biden’s team – and then Young specifically. It was a process, he noted, defined by something quite rare in Washington.
There was no drama.