President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget should elicit a lot of questions about the future of agency discretionary spending.
Mulvaney, who is a former small business owner, is best known for being a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus and for co-authoring the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2011, which tried to address what it saw as unneeded federal spending, and create a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The House passed the bill in July 2011, but the Senate never voted on it and President Barack Obama threatened to veto it.
“With Mick at the head of OMB, my administration is going to make smart choices about America’s budget, bring new accountability to our federal government, and renew the American taxpayer’s trust in how their money is spent,” Trump said in a statement.
Mulvaney, who was elected in 2010 to Congress, will hold what is probably the most political position at OMB. So on one hand, his ability to influence agency’s budgets to cut unneeded spending will be helpful. Both the administrations of President George W. Bush and Obama tried to reduce the number of programs that were duplicative or no longer necessary, but ran into congressional roadblocks.
So maybe, just maybe, Mulvaney’s experience and relationships with lawmakers will help finally push through some long-needed changes in federal programs.
“Congressman Mulvaney has a great combination of experience advocating for fiscal discipline and a smaller, smarter government,” said Robert Shea, a former OMB official and now a principal with Grant Thornton. “That experience will serve him well as director of OMB, which has dual missions of budget and management of the Executive Branch.”
Mulvaney said in a statement that he believes the Trump administration will bring “budgetary and fiscal sanity back” to the government.
“Each day, families across our nation make disciplined choices about how to spend their hard earned money, and the federal government should exercise the same discretion that hardworking Americans do every day,” Mulvaney said.
“Mick is a great choice for OMB Director,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) in a statement. “I’ve often described him as ‘young’ Paul Ryan when it comes to all things budget-related. He’s done his homework when it comes to the federal budget and will hit the ground running in this very important job.”
At the same time, however, the average tenure of the Senate-confirmed OMB director over the last 16 years has been 21 months. The average OMB director’s tenure under the Bush administration was 23 months, while under the Obama administration the time in the job was just under 19 months.
Even if Mulvaney lasts three years, he really can only influence 2 1/2 budget cycles at best. The 2017 budget is basically done and the Trump administration will have limited input into the 2018 budget request that is due to Congress in February.
That means Mulvaney and the Trump administration’s first budget will be in 2019, and if he lasts only into 2020 — per average OMB director — that means he’s influencing only two full budget cycles —2019 and 2020 — and a partial one in 2018.
Should agencies be worried about how much of an impact he can have in two budget cycles? Any President’s budget request is routinely dead-on-arrival to Capitol Hill, so even if Mulvaney pushes for major cuts in discretionary spending, will lawmakers follow the Trump administration’s lead?
No surprise Democrats were not enthusiastic about Mulvaney.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, said Mulvaney will have a tough time trying to reconcile the spending priorities Trump has discussed such as boosting infrastructure and Defense funding, and his own beliefs of smaller, limited government.
“House Democrats will continue to push for budgets that not only promote fiscal sustainability but also prioritize expanding economic opportunity,” Hoyer said. “In the coming months, Congress will have to address the debt ceiling once more, and Rep. Mulvaney and the next administration will need to act responsibly to prevent a catastrophic default — something Rep. Mulvaney has refused to do in the past.”
The position federal employees really should be watching is who Trump and Mulvaney choose to be the deputy director for management (DDM) at OMB. That person — maybe someone like Karen Evans or Linda Springer, both of whom are on the transition team — will have a much larger impact on government management and how agencies spend their money.
The DDM really drives the management of government and how agencies decide to meet priorities. This is something the Obama administration lost sight of until it named Beth Cobert, who has spent the last 18 months as the acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management.