Mick Mulvaney’s timetable for having a quick impact on the federal budget is shrinking fast.
Once the Senate, as expected, confirms the South Carolina Republican congressman as President Donald Trump’s budget chief, he would have something less than 22 days to tackle what Washington’s legion of budget-watchers see as a nearly impossible task.
Trump is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress Feb. 28, where he’s expected to lay out his plans for the next four years and how those plans are supported by the federal budget.
Will he continue to promote tax cuts? And leave Social Security and Medicare untouched? If so, how does he plan to get budget deficits down? And will Mulvaney, known for insisting on deficit reduction, be prepared to defend all this?
“It’s a series of increasingly daunting tasks,” said Ed Lorenzen, a senior adviser at the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington-based watchdog group.
Two Senate committees approved the nomination of Mulvaney on Thursday, both by party line votes. The nomination now goes to the full Senate. While Mulvaney is likely to win confirmation, the earliest a vote is expected is next week.
Even next week might be unlikely, as Democrats are stalling Trump’s nominations, protesting his order last week to temporarily bar immigrants and some others from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Until he’s confirmed, Mulvaney remains a congressman. But budget deadlines are approaching fast. Not only does Mulvaney face the huge task of helping to craft and defend the complex multitrillion-dollar federal budget, he faces Democrats highly skeptical he can do the job and what will be Republican former colleagues intent on holding him to his reputation as a deficit hawk.
Mick Mulvaney will either be the most influential member of the Trump Cabinet or the first Cabinet member out the door.
Stan Collender, a veteran Washington budget analyst
During his confirmation process, Mulvaney had to explain his failure to pay $15,000 in taxes on a nanny he’d employed 15 years ago. He was unable to produce the required paperwork proving the employee was a legal worker in the United States.
And Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chided him for his “cavalier attitude” toward government shutdowns during his time in Congress. These were small issues compared with what awaits him.
When Trump addresses Congress, a centerpiece of that address will be what is called “a skinny budget” that will lay out the major plans of the next four years. It will address what Trump wants to do and how to pay for it.
“Mulvaney’s job this month is to somehow merge the Trump vision of increased infrastructure and defense spending, with no cuts to entitlements and reductions in federal income through tax cuts, with his own worldview of deficit reduction or wanting a balanced budget,” said Lorenzen.
Mulvaney is known as a warrior against the federal spending that adds to the $20 trillion national debt.
He’ll be in charge of a budget for a president who appears committed to his campaign promises. Looming large among those promises: Trump said he would not cut Social Security and Medicare, known as entitlements in budget speak.
Entitlements, however, make up about two-thirds of the federal budget. The rest of the budget is called “discretionary spending.” Of that 30 percent of the budget, a bit more than half goes to the defense budget. The rest of the federal budget, including what are thought to be Trump’s plans for $140 billion in addition infrastructure costs, comes out of the remaining 15 percent.
The government pays for this largely through the money collected in taxes. So if Mulvaney is true to another Trump promise, of tax cuts, he will be looking at funding entitlements at roughly the same level, defense at a higher cost and the potential for higher costs in other areas, yet with less tax money – and somehow to do this while decreasing federal budget deficits.
Robert Bixby, a federal budget expert at the nonpartisan Concord Coalition in Washington, said making all that work together would make for a hectic month. In fact, he said, it makes for a very intense 18 months, the amount of time it is thought that a full federal budget takes to compile.
“Their first matter of business has to be to determine their goals,” he said. “They have to get on the same page, and what we know about their views of budgeting: They aren’t. My guess is the first casualty of this process will be the notion of building towards a balanced budget.”
Stan Collender, a veteran Washington budget analyst and longtime critic of Republicans, simply doesn’t believe the task facing Mulvaney can be done if Trump remains true to his promises and Mulvaney remains true to himself.
“Mick Mulvaney will either be the most influential member of the Trump Cabinet or the first Cabinet member out the door,” he said. “Mulvaney is known for his opposition to deficit spending. He was brought in to give credibility in Congress to Trump’s budgets. But OMB is always a tough job. Not many directors last very long; they burn out. We may hear him resign after three months.”
Steve Ellis, a budget expert at the D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, said “the reality is that the first budget that will fully reflect Mulvaney has to be for 2019.”