It is very tempting to predict that the high point of Mick Mulvaney’s tenure as director of the Office of Management and Budget could have come and gone the moment he was confirmed by the Senate.
In less than two weeks, Donald Trump is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress. Nobody expects him to have a formal budget by then (indeed, some have predicted he won’t submit one this year at all). But Trump urgently does need to give Congress and the public some clear indications of his budget’s broad outlines, and consequently what he will and will not accept in the way of an appropriations bill, a debt-limit extension, and most of all the two massive budget-reconciliation bills planned for this year, with the first one (repealing Obamacare) due imminently. This not the kind of information the president can convey by Twitter or the sort of vague, contradictory assertions of sound policies and responsible budgets he made during the campaign, the transition, or the early days of his administration. He needs hard revenue and spending estimates instantly. That’s Mulvaney’s job.
Unfortunately, the new OMB director will begin this insanely difficult task with a skeleton staff at the policy-making level, as Politico explains:
[T]he Trump administration has yet to announce any political appointees besides the South Carolina Republican, the agency confirmed Tuesday. That includes multiple associate directors who oversee budget policy areas — from health care to national security — and wouldn’t require Senate confirmation.
Trump has also yet to name either deputy director position, which both require Senate action….
“Typically, that whole architecture is in place,” said Gordon Adams, who led national security policy for the Clinton administration and assisted with the Obama budget transition. “I don’t envy Mick Mulvaney’s job when he gets there.”
But there are bigger problems Mulvaney cannot address by burning the midnight oil or even getting fully staffed up: the vast differences of opinion on basic fiscal matters between him and his new boss, which were by no means resolved in his confirmation hearings. He’s an old-school red-ink-hating deficit hawk; it’s not clear Trump even cares about deficits. He’s an entitlement reformer; Trump is not. He thinks the Pentagon should continue to exist under firm spending caps; Trump wants to boost defense spending right away no matter what. More basically, Mulvaney shows signs of believing in basic budgetary arithmetic, while the 45th president of the United States will very likely tell him to add 2 and 2 and get 8.
These manifest and multiple differences are what led one leading budget expert, Stan Collender, to predict that Mulvaney will either repudiate his own views, change Trump’s, or leave the job very early on. As he looks at the weeks just ahead, Mulvaney may even wish he had not been confirmed.