President Trump’s nominee to run the Office of Management Budget on Tuesday expressed enthusiasm for reviving a George W. Bush-era tool for evaluating the effectiveness of federal programs, said the “stars are aligned to reform the regulatory system” and expressed a willingness to examine the potential overuse of contractors under Trump’s new hiring freeze.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., also defended his role in the 2013 government shutdown and lauded the value of inspectors general, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He appeared earlier Tuesday before the Senate Budget Committee, where he said the government needs a better system for handling both high and low performing employees.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who ran OMB under George W. Bush, reminded Mulvaney that “it’s the worst job in Washington unless you like saying ‘no’ and telling Cabinet officials they can’t have what they want.” Noting there traditionally is “less focus on the M than the B” in OMB, Portman said he looks forward to working with Mulvaney on the Senate’s bipartisan Regulatory Accountability Act, which differs somewhat from the recent House-passed regulatory reform bills that Mulvaney has backed.
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The nominee said he envisions himself assembling “real hard data and explaining to the president the real-world consequences” of a batch of proposed agency regulations. Then Trump might say, “This one makes sense and the other four don’t.”
The regulatory reform movement has “finally reached critical mass,” Mulvaney told the senators. Something has “broken down,” he said, when pizza franchises he once worked with are pressured under federal rules to post nutritional information that conceivably would require “a board the size of a football field.”
When Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., pressed him, Mulvaney stressed the need for better cost-benefit analysis. “Some types of data are extraordinarily good, some I question whether they’re defensible,” Mulvaney said. “I would make sure the data come from a variety of sources to reach the best conclusions.”
Freshman Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., sought assurance that he would use data that is backed by science, not self-interested industries. “The OMB director has to know a lot of science to run the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs,” she said. “How are we nonscientists qualified to disagree with scientists?”
Mulvaney said, “Looking at rules is a complex dance the OMB director has to do to give the president the best advice. Do we all bring a certain bias? Yes.”
Portman praised George W. Bush’s Program Assessment Rating for measuring the performance of federal initiatives and tying the results to spending, saying PART was “an enormous undertaking that some thought too time-consuming. But the result was that some programs had their budgets increased, some decreased, and some were eliminated.”
Mulvaney said he admired the quantitative data that PART supplied, adding that “ending PART denied us a tool, and I’m looking forward to adding management tools.”
Carper expressed skepticism about Trump’s agenda of cutting taxes, hiking defense spending, reducing the deficit and building a wall along the southern border, saying, “These are expensive ideas. We can’t do all those things.” Someone, he added, needs to “speak truth to power. Could you be that person?”
Mulvaney said, “I’d like to think so, though I don’t expect the president to agree all the time.” The nominee did vow to avoid what past budget officials have called “the magic asterisk,” to denote large but unspecified program cuts.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., grilled Mulvaney on his votes to cut troops in Afghanistan and Europe, as well as his record of seeking to cut defense during the 2013 government shutdown. “Maybe you don’t treat it with the seriousness it deserves,” McCain said. “You’ve spent your entire career pitting the military against debt reduction.”
Mulvaney said he hadn’t changed his mind on military cuts, though, as he noted several times, his views as an elected official would not necessarily apply if he were confirmed to run OMB. “We don’t govern by crisis,” he told McCain, saying he was in sync with the president on raising “the top line” on defense, and offsetting it with cuts in nondefense spending. “We should treat all waste equally, the same at DoD,” Mulvaney said. “If not, it undermines our credibility.”
When Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked him whether shutting down the government to defund Obamacare is “good policy,” Mulvaney said his House votes were in favor of alternative approaches to health care and debt reduction. “A government shutdown is never a desirable end,” he said.
McCaskill succeeded in getting the nominee to promise to consider a freeze on federal contracting along with Trump’s freeze on hiring, on which Mulvaney said he has not been briefed. “We shouldn’t paint with a broad brush,” he said, since the balance that is most effective is “driven by the economic situation.”
Mulvaney said he was unaware of changes in size of the federal workforce after Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., stated that it had declined in the decades since the Reagan administration.
When Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked how Trump’s hiring freeze could help when there are 41,000 medical professional vacancies at veterans hospitals, Mulvaney said, “I have difficulty coming to conclusion that best way to improve VA is to add more people. But I’m willing to work with its offices.”
Prodded by Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., on what he would do to take better advantage of IG recommendations for agencies, Mulvaney said, “Most of the data in the oversight committees is driven by IGs,” though some agencies lack such watchdogs, or have weak ones. “I’m looking forward to making IGs a priority at OMB…..to reinvigorating them [to help agencies] be more accountable and efficient.”