Meet Sylvia Burwell, the woman who ordered the government shutdown

Sylvia Mathews Burwell smiles as President Barack Obama announces her as his choice to be the next White House budget director on March 4. Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

A single person shut down the entire U.S. government for the first time in 17 years.

Not a congressman, but an unelected woman named Sylvia Burwell who, as the relatively new director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent the email that initiated the process that has closed national parks, visitors’ centers and even the “panda-cam” at the National Zoo.

"Agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations," Burwell wrote in a memo to heads of executive departments and agencies Monday night as it became clear lawmakers had failed to agree on a budget deal. "We urge Congress to act quickly to pass a Continuing Resolution to provide a short-term bridge that ensures sufficient time to pass a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year."


Burwell, 47, has only been on the job for about six months, but its not her first turn at the OMB, where she spent three years as deputy director in the late 90s. Since then, she has held numerous other high-profile leadership jobs and is known for her dedication to charitable work, as well as for breaking barriers in a male-dominated world. 

During her first OMB stint, Burwell was "part of a team that presided over three budget surpluses in a row," President Obama said when he nominated her at the White House in March for the director job, speaking of her years during the Clinton administration. "So Sylvia knows her way around a budget."

But perhaps what attracted Obama to nominate her for current position is exactly what she had to admonish Congress for failing at Monday night: her proven record of problem-solving.


Most recently, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who hails from tiny Hinton, W. Va., has been doing philanthropic work for the past 12 years. Since 2001, she held various top-level positions at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropic organization, before moving on at the end of 2011 to become president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, which focuses on ending hunger in the U.S.

"Sylvia is a strong leader who both masters the details and has a clear vision for making big things happen. She cares deeply about people and has natural personal warmth that enables her to build relationships and drive results that deliver impact," Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Mike Duke said in a statement after Obama nominated her for OMB director.

"She understands business and the role that business, government and civil society must play to build a strong economy that provides opportunity and strengthens communities across the country."

Prior experience with the Office of Management and Budget 

But her history with politics goes even deeper. She got her start when working for Bill Clinton's presidential transition team in Little Rock, Ark., after he was elected in 1992.

In 1993, she helped Robert Rubin — future treasury secretary — set up the newly created National Economic Council in the White House. She served as staff director and followed him when he became treasury secretary as his chief of staff a couple years later.

Her years with Rubin were crucial, according to another Clinton chief of staff.

"She became an extremely skilled negotiator," John Podesta told Bloomberg. "Everyone who works with her really admires her, not only her intelligence and depth of her knowledge on federal budget matters, but also her organizational talents."

In the 1990s, President Clinton and congressional Republicans managed to pass a balanced-budget deal — something that seems far from possible now. 

"Sylvia's experience managing billion-dollar global budgets, combined with her leadership on domestic fiscal policy in the '90s, make her a uniquely qualified candidate to lead OMB," Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., told The National Journal earlier this summer.

She moved to the OMB for the first time from 1998 to 2001 to be Jack Lew's deputy director, Obama's former chief of staff who recently took over as treasury secretary. In this role, she often butted heads with Republicans.


In her return to the OMB, this time as director, Burwell is only the second woman ever to lead the office (the first was Alice Rivlin from 1994 to 1996). Her Senate confirmation came after the Obama administration came under harsh criticism for having a male-dominated cabinet.

While her appointment was widely praised, it also drew some criticism, particularly from those who worried about her previous connection to Wal-Mart.

"Obviously Wal-Mart has a lot of interests in, say, labor rights that are not in alignment with the best interests of the country. If she shares those views that would be an issue," said Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy & Research, reported The Daily Kos shortly after her nomination.

Academic accolades

Burwell graduated from Harvard University cum laude with a bachelor's degree in government, then went on to get a second bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

She was an associate at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. for a couple of years after school before she worked for Clinton's presidential transition team.

Burwell is married to Stephen Burwell, an attorney and an outdoorsman who after five dates, asked Burwell if she "wanted to go on a 100-mile, two-day bike ride. Even though my bike still had the sticker on and flat tires ... I said 'absolutely," she told The Seattle Times. The couple has two young children.

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