It has not drawn the media attention devoted to ostensibly more important appointments, but Donald Trump’s choice of tea-party bravo and House Freedom Caucus co-founder Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, to serve as his director of the Office of Management and Budget could be among the most fateful decisions of the transition.
Trump managed to win the presidency while maintaining a massively self-contradictory set of fiscal policies: He’s for a big upper-end and corporate tax cut, higher defense spending, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare (which will initially cost, not save, money), and a large package of infrastructure investments. On some days, he’s also for reducing the national debt. And on many days, he’s been opposed to “entitlement reform” — the Beltway term for reductions in benefits for, or major structural changes in, Medicare and Social Security — maneuvers most Republicans have favored to “pay for” the other fiscal goodies they want. The selection at OMB is the best signal yet of how Trump intends to deal with these contradictions, at a time when congressional Republicans are planning to make the budget process the fulcrum for radically conservative changes in federal priorities, beginning immediately in January.
Mulvaney is, on paper, an OMB director likely to embrace and intensify the radicalism of GOP budgetary efforts in 2017, and to resolve Trump’s fiscal self-contradictions by going after types of federal spending Republican constituencies don’t care about — for instance, anything even vaguely targeted toward poor and minority folk. A local Mexican-restaurant-chain owner, Mulvaney was elected to Congress in the tea-party wave of 2010, defeating longtime Democratic congressperson (and then-chairperson, as it happens, of the House Budget Committee) John Spratt.
As the New York Times sums him up:
Mr. Mulvaney has repeatedly opposed some of his own party’s budget proposals, and quickly established himself as one of the most outspoken members of that 2010 class of Republicans. By 2013, at the outset of his second term, he declined to support Mr. Boehner’s re-election as speaker, abstaining from the vote in protest.
Mulvaney is perhaps best known in Washington as an inveterate debt-default advocate. He campaigned in 2010 on a promise not to vote for any debt-limit increase (a popular, if insanely irresponsible, position among firebrand conservatives), and was part of a small group of like-minded Republicans who voted against the debt-limit deal that ended the 2013 government shutdown. He’s a big fan of “entitlement reform.” His ultimate fiscal vision is best represented by the “Cut, Cap and Balance” scheme he helped design shortly after entering Congress, which became a litmus test for Republican presidential candidates in 2012. It involved a permanent limitation on federal spending as a percentage of GDP, to be written into the U.S. Constitution. And it became a favorite prescription for Mulvaney’s Senate colleague from South Carolina, Jim DeMint, who as president of the Heritage Foundation (and Trump transition adviser) may have had a hand in his selection for OMB director.
It is hard to think of anyone Trump could have picked for this job who is more inclined to think of federal spending cuts as self-evidently a good idea in all seasons. It is no mistake that the Club for Growth hailed this man as someone who has “walked the walk of economic conservatism” — code for favoring unpopular spending cuts.
Aside from the fear Mulvaney’s selection ought to strike in the hearts of anyone who cares about the social safety net, there are two problems he could create for Republicans at OMB. The first is that he’s loudly opposed special treatment for a big chunk of Pentagon spending in its own little off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations account. You’d figure OCO would be of great value to the Trump administration in squaring fiscal circles. The second problem is that Mulvaney, like many tea folk, is a bit of a maniac about deficits and debt. Perhaps the Trump people extracted a pledge from him that he’d be okay with some Reagan-style “magic asterisk” in the budget that reduces future deficits by assuming the administration’s economic plans will produce science-fiction-level revenues. Or maybe the math doesn’t matter because (as Stan Collender has predicted) Trump doesn’t plan to develop his own budget for the next fiscal year. In that case, Mulvaney’s role may simply be to push congressional Republicans to be as far-reaching and draconian as possible in designing domestic spending cuts to enact via the budget reconciliation process that can make great and terrible things happen by a straight majority vote in both Houses with no opportunity to filibuster.
All in all, Mulvaney’s appointment shows a willingness to pursue the kind of “disruption” in Washington that conservative ultras have wanted for many years. Anyone imagining that Trump will wind up pursuing “centrist,” much less bipartisan policies really needs to wake up and smell the coffee — or perhaps the tea.