Mulvaney, Mixing Principles and Pragmatism in OMB Role
As President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney has pledged to shrink the size and cost of government. But his role in the administration keeps growing.
The president promised major overhauls of health care and the tax code, both of which are already meeting with roadblocks in Congress. And, on Trump’s 100th day in office, April 28, the White House hopes to avoid a government shutdown over spending.
At the center of it all is Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman accustomed to bruising fights over health care and spending. As a founding member of the rabble-rousing House Freedom Caucus, he was more often an instigator of such clashes, creating headaches for Republican leaders who promoted a more pragmatic approach. But now the script has flipped — with Mulvaney prodding lawmakers on behalf of the so-called establishment, encouraging pragmatism over ideological purity.
A leading role in the health care saga showcased Mulvaney as a key actor in Trump’s White House, boasting unusual influence for a director of the Office of Management and Budget. It’s not been an accident, either.
President "Obama’s OMB directors were never a big deal,” said Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist. “We wanted to go back to an OMB director who was a central player, very much in the Reagan model.”
Reagan’s first OMB director, David Stockman, gained notoriety as the “father of Reaganomics” for pushing deep domestic spending cuts and a supply-side economic approach. Like Mulvaney, Stockman was a small-government fiscal conservative who was plucked from the House of Representatives to run the OMB.
In a similar spirit, Mulvaney might be the father of Trumponomics: translating the 45th president’s imprecise or impractical campaign promises into an aggressive budget plan — critics would call it “draconian” — that would ax billions of dollars in discretionary programs to pay for an increase in defense spending.
But, just two months into the job, Mulvaney’s portfolio has already ballooned to encompass much more than that. At the same time that he unveiled his spending blueprint last month, Mulvaney was in the thick of negotiations to roll back the Affordable Care Act, acting as an emissary to Congress and conservative groups and as a policy guru, meanwhile, within the White House.
During a March 8 meeting in the Oval Office, leaders of those conservative groups convened in a semicircle around the Resolute Desk to discuss health care with Trump. The president’s top aides were scattered around the room, including his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and Bannon; but only Mulvaney was seated at the desk, directly to the president’s left.
“For all the detailed questions, they turned to Mulvaney,” said one attendee.
By contrast, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a self-styled leader of the conservative push to reform health care over the past seven years, has been “nowhere to be seen in these discussions,” the attendee noted. “It’s Mulvaney and the vice president.”
To hear Mulvaney tell it, he was cast in this leading role almost by happenstance: a function of “being in the right place at the right time,” he told RealClearPolitics in an interview last week. In a Washington-outsider administration, Mulvaney is one of only a few officials or advisers with ties to Congress and first-hand experience in the governing process.
“I know most of the folks involved on the Hill, and it’s not that I have ... any more credibility than anybody else, but there is a familiarity,” he said. “If you have that familiarity, sometimes it just makes it easier to have a candid conversation when you’ve got to have a candid conversation.”
Mulvaney has already engaged in a slew of “candid” discussions on health care, in particular with his former Freedom Caucus colleagues, futilely encouraging them last month to support the administration’s ill-fated reform proposal, known formally as the American Health Care Act. The assignment publicly tested Mulvaney’s commitment to his new boss and the administration’s policy direction, amid strong pushback from conservative corners.
“He’s friends with these guys [in the Freedom Caucus]. They broke bread together for the past four years,” said Mulvaney’s former chief of staff, Al Simpson. “But then again, Mick’s got a job to do.”
There was also the question of whether Mulvaney’s ultra-conservative peers would accept him in his new role, and whether he would hold sway with them any longer.
“We know him, we trust him, we know the man he is. We believed he was an honest broker,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Freedom Caucus member who also served with Mulvaney on the South Carolina delegation. “We also understood that he knew our hearts and knew our position. Personally, that led me to a level of comfort with what Mick was telling us and what the White House was trying to achieve.”
Others have been less supportive, and some conservatives “feel kind of betrayed by Mulvaney,” said one senior aide to such a lawmaker. “I think there’d be a way to advocate for the White House position that’s more respectful of what the Freedom Caucus is trying to accomplish.”
Mulvaney has projected a clear-eyed sense of his ideological swivel from Congress to the administration, acknowledging in a questionnaire during his confirmation process that he would likely “be called upon to support legislation that I might well have voted against.”
“I am fully aware of this,” Mulvaney wrote, “and do not think it will impair my performance in any way whatsoever.”
Sen. Rob Portman, who helmed OMB under President George W. Bush, warned Mulvaney during his confirmation hearing that “it’s the worst job in Washington unless you like saying ‘no’ and telling Cabinet officials they can’t have what they want.”
Indeed, Mulvaney was prepared to be "the most hated man in Washington,” he told his home-state Post & Courier newspaper.
"I think the president knows — and I'm not sure what it says about my personality — that I'm going to be damn good at this job,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney’s blueprint for Trump’s “America First Budget” indeed embraces a take-no-prisoners approach, proposing $54 billion in cuts to offset an equal increase in military spending. The budget director lit up as he explained the spending reductions to reporters last month, with a shamrock spilling out of his suit jacket pocket to mark St. Patrick’s Day.
“You can’t drain the swamp and leave all of the people in it,” Mulvaney said.
His rationale for cutting government funding to Meals on Wheels spun off into its own news cycle. “Meals on Wheels sounds great,” Mulvaney told reporters. But, he added, “we're not going to spend on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.”
Critics, including some Republicans, panned that stark assessment as emotionally detached, reflecting a heartless budget plan.
“We live in a time when anyone says anything, it’s easy to take out of character,” said Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolina Republican. “No matter what position we take regarding cuts, it will be painful for someone. Mick loves people and has a passion and a heart for them, and I think any suggestion that he was being without emotion was taken out of the character of who he is and what he believes.”
But if Mulvaney is already practiced at saying “no,” a potential function of his stint in the Freedom Caucus, he hasn't yet mastered the art of nudging Republican lawmakers to “yes.” (Republican congressional leaders past and present, who clashed with Mulvaney and his Freedom Caucus co-conspirators, might now find some poetic justice in his learning curve.)
As he shuttled between the White House and Capitol Hill last month, making the case for the AHCA and searching for a compromise, Mulvaney predicted privately to Trump that conservative holdouts “would work to make the bill better and then support the party,” the OMB director recounted on “Meet the Press” after the legislation stalled. “And for some reason, that hasn't happened.”
It’s not clear whether Mulvaney misjudged his former cohorts or was a victim of his own nostalgia for the group, whose working name in its earliest days was the Reasonable Nutjob Caucus.
“What we wanted was a group that could take a really, really tough vote against leadership when we thought it moved the ball in the right direction, but at the same time, take a really, really tough vote with the leadership when we thought that would move the ball in the right direction,” Mulvaney said. “We were not set up to be obstructionists.”
The Freedom Caucus “was designed to fight, fight, fight, fight, fight to move things to the right, and at the end, seal the deal by closing the deal,” he added. “I thought that is what would happen here. And I’m still hopeful that that’s what will happen.”
The administration hasn’t abandoned hope, and last week the White House hurriedly revived the health care talks before lawmakers left for recess — again to no avail. But the experience so far has left Mulvaney a bit humbled, sounding like a different man than the Freedom Caucus firebrand who stoked policy fights to make a point.
“One of the things I’ve learned is, it’s been a long time since our party has had to actually legislate,” Mulvaney told RCP. “We’ve been playing defense against the Obama administration for so long ... it’s taking us longer than I thought it would to shift gears into going on offense.
“We have to learn to switch from stopping things to getting things done, and we’ve not fully completed that metamorphosis yet.”
If Republicans are to mature into a governing majority that can deliver on Trump’s policy priorities, Mulvaney will need to help rein in the forces that swept him to Washington in the first place.
A lawyer in private practice who then ran his family’s real estate business and started a homebuilding company, he didn’t seriously consider running for office until Simpson, then chairman of the Lancaster County GOP, pitched him on the idea over a long lunch in 2006. A state House seat was coming open. “He turned me down four times, and I kept going back to him,” Simpson recalled. Finally, Mulvaney caved, asking Simpson, “Can we win?” Mulvaney did, by 209 votes.
In the state House and, later, the state Senate, the legislator began to establish his conservative bona fides, aligning with then-Gov. Mark Sanford in efforts to dramatically cut state spending. Mulvaney joined the William Wallace Caucus in the South Carolina Senate, a small-scale precursor to the Freedom Caucus, named for the “Braveheart” protagonist.
But Mulvaney’s ambitions quickly outgrew state politics. In 2009, he stopped by a town-hall meeting in his district, where Rep. John Spratt, the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee, tangled with angry constituents over health care reform.
Mulvaney “called me when he got home and said, ‘We’re running for Congress,’” Simpson recounted. “I said, ‘Don’t do that.’”
But the race perfectly captured the Tea Party zeal of the moment: a young conservative upstart challenging a longtime Washington fixture, rallying against President Obama’s ACA. When Mulvaney won, he arrived on Capitol Hill as an avatar of the new order.
The new congressman showed himself to be more practical and less partisan than his Tea Party label might have suggested, however. When he and Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, realized they had introduced similar bills to roll back defense spending, they decided to combine forces. “Sure enough, they introduced the bill, it passed, and a week later they were on ‘Morning Joe’ together,” said Simpson.
And Mulvaney became a target of the ultra-conservative outlet Breitbart News, then run by Bannon, when he expressed openness to pursuing immigration reform — going so far as to convene a town hall entirely in Spanish.
“I am more than willing to have a discussion about allowing at least part of the 11 million people here illegally to have some type of status,” Mulvaney told The New York Times at the time. “I’m just disappointed that more people in my party don’t want to do that.”
Among the Tea Party conservatives, Mulvaney distinguished himself as a sharp strategist who could best the House whip team in vote-counting. And he earned the respect of some House leaders as an honest broker during sticky negotiations.
“We wouldn't always get his vote, but he would never surprise us, and he would always bring to the table an idea to get to ‘yes,’” said John Stipicevic, a former top aide to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy when he served as whip.
Still, Mulvaney is most widely known for his role in some of the GOP’s banner implosions. In 2013, he told CNN that it “was worth having the fight” over Obama’s signature health care law that led to a government shutdown. In his OMB confirmation questionnaire, Mulvaney affirmed that he still believes the shutdown was “good policy.”
“Any time that Congress attempts to assert the power of the purse, the possibility for a lapse in appropriations exists,” he wrote. “But defending the basic principles of Congress’ constitutional authority always contains some element of ‘good policy.’”
Mulvaney began to eye the OMB director role as early as 2011, when he was assigned to the House Budget Committee. But he was not Trump’s first choice. Initially, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, suggested recruiting from Wall Street, according to one administration source. When that idea fizzled, the transition team looked to Capitol Hill — first offering the role to Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. But Hensarling passed.
When Mulvaney finally met with Trump, “he got the job in the first interview,” Bannon said.
If the president has developed a reputation as acting mercurial toward his advisers, Mulvaney has so far seemed to maintain his favorable standing. In meetings, the president regularly consults Mulvaney on all manner of numbers and policy details; if his budget director isn’t in the room, Trump will call him in.
On two recent weekends, Mulvaney has golfed with the president — although sources close to both concede that this might be as much a reflection of the former’s golf skill and devotion to the sport as his closeness to the commander-in-chief.
“Golfers will know that there’s a special bond that golfers share,” Mulvaney said. “My dad used to tell me that I couldn’t do a business deal with somebody until I’d played golf with him at least one time.”
Meanwhile, Mulvaney’s ideology has fit in neatly among the so-called “right wing of the West Wing,” including Bannon, Priebus and policy adviser Stephen Miller — although he also works well with Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic adviser, who has previously identified as a Democrat.
Still, the biggest tests of Mulvaney’s standing and influence are yet to come. Most pressingly, he faces a spending deadline and potential government shutdown at the end of the month — a moment that will force him to reconcile his pro-shutdown past with an administration that needs to prove it can govern.
A shutdown “is never a desirable end,” Mulvaney told RCP last week. “What we’re focusing on is simply getting our priorities funded.”
An administration official echoed that: “No one here or on the Hill that has any interest in having a showdown at the OK Corral.”
But guaranteed Democratic opposition, in particular to funding for a border wall, would require Republicans to reach near-consensus on the plan — a high bar for the current conference on any legislation.
Meanwhile, the president’s biggest legislative priorities remain in flux, including health care and tax reform. Health care is a “linchpin” in the president’s agenda, Mulvaney told RCP. It is unclear, however, that he will persuade Republican holdouts to support the team.
In his transition to the White House, Mulvaney insists he has not needed to stifle his own beliefs. The administration “want[s] me to be the same principled voice that I was when I was in the House. I may not ultimately prevail, my views may not prevail, but that’s a function of being a member of a team. I have news for you: My views didn’t prevail when I was a member of the House either. And it didn’t mean that I was a failure, and it didn’t mean that I’d compromised my principles,” Mulvaney said. “That’s what’s so exciting and invigorating to me, is I can be the same person that I was, just be on a different team. And that’s what I described to my Freedom Caucus friends.”
Emblematic of Mulvaney’s transition to the executive branch has been his early retirement from another team: the congressional baseball squad, where he was a backup infielder for a few years before taking on coaching duties last season.
“We’re going to miss Mick on the team this year,” said Duncan, a fellow second-string infielder. “He was always a great bunter.”
“I know he will come to the game,” Duncan added, “he’ll sit in the dugout, and he’ll cheer us on.”