Senate Democrats blast OMB pick, but find FEMA and regulatory nominees more amenable.
Wednesday’s routine confirmation hearing for three Trump nominees turned into a platform for Senate Democrats to ratchet up resistance to a White House directive requiring agencies to favor Republicans when responding to congressional oversight inquiries. The policy of responding only to members of the congressional majority was justified in a May 1 memo to the White House counsel from acting Assistant Attorney General Curtis Gannon and posted on the website of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
None of the three nominees—Brock Long to be administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Russell Vought to be Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Neomi Rao to be administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—appeared to be in danger of being rejected by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
But Vought, a former Republican Senate and House staffer whom Trump brought in from the Heritage Foundation’s Action for America, found himself defending not only Trump’s restrictions on oversight cooperation with Democrats but also the macro-numbers and priorities laid out in the fiscal 2018 budget the White House released last month.
Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., convened the hearing asserting that “the No. 1 solution to our nation’s problem is economic growth, and the No. 1 impediment to economic growth is overregulation.” Addressing Rao, a former Senate staff attorney and now a controversial professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, Johnson praised President Trump’s executive order requiring that two regulations be ended for each new one added. “Everything in Washington is additive, either with legislation and regulations,” he complained. “We spend billions on procurement process so we don’t’ waste a buck.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, brought in to introduce Rao, called her “uniquely qualified to carefully scrutinize the rules.” The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs “may not receive as much fanfare as other offices, but it is important because for years citizens and business have complained about the process being opaque and unworkable, he said. Hatch said he hoped to work with her on regulatory reform legislation. “It’s not about politics,” he said. “No matter which party is in power, the administrative process is broken.”
But Ranking Member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was tougher on Rao. “I’m proud of the effort of my colleagues to clear out silly regulations, and the process today is not perfect,” she said. “But I’m concerned about some of your [free market] policy assumptions and that you disregard consumer protections.”
A ‘Limited Cooperation’ Policy
McCaskill trained her loudest fire, however, on Vought, noting that he was on the Trump transition team and worked on the administration’s budget, which is proposing “drastic cuts” that will hurt the poorest Americans, public infrastructure and federal inspectors general who find waste, fraud and abuse, she said. “That alone has raised concerns for me,” McCaskill said, saying the budget’s “core assumptions rest on financial fantasy” and that “key members of the administration can’t agree on growth assumptions, the real underpinnings of the budget.” She said Vought’s “main duty is to get the numbers right,” but questioned the budget’s assumptions and noted that there was no “evidentiary backing” for some of the program cuts.
Vought stressed that country’s $20 trillion national debt “will eventually wreck the country if not addressed.”
“I come from a blue collar family. I’m the son of an electrician and a school teacher. I know what they went through to balance their budget and save for the future,” he said. “But they also worked long hours to pay for the government in their lives, and I often have wondered what they would have been free to build and give without such a high burden.”
He told Chairman Johnson he would agree to partner with the committee in finding waste and savings and reviving “a conversation about getting back to balancing the budget.”
But the Democrats zeroed in on the oversight restrictions. “Imagine my concern,” McCaskill said, “when the White House tells an agency not to respond to a ranking member’s questions.” She noted that FEMA nominee Long and his prospective boss, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, earlier had both agreed that they would honor information requests from Democrats.
“Have you ever been in an administration where you worked for the minority?” she asked. “Would you have taken that lying down? “
Vought said though he had not read the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion that Trump is using for his limited-cooperation policy, said. “What is controlling now on how agencies should respond to oversight flows through the chairmen subject to the discretion of the [OMB] director,” he said. “I’m looking to work with you on waste fraud and abuse,” but his position “merely reflects the policy of the administration. The rule of law is important.”
McCaskill scolded him for not giving “a straight answer. We have huge problems if you can’t even say whether it’s right or wrong,” she said, calling the Justice Department opinion “hogwash. I’ll punch above my weight on this if this administration thinks it can withhold information” from Democratic overseers. “Welcome to the big leagues, administration,” McCaskill said to the Trump team. “You get oversight.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Vought’s position probably disqualified him from her support.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who has been actively demanding greater disclosure from Trump agencies on a host of issues, spoke emotionally. “This administration is the worse responder I’ve ever seen,” he said to Republican colleagues. “If a Democratic administration did this for you guys, you would shut the place down. Talk about draining the swamp—these guys are creating the swamp.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said when he was budget director in the George W. Bush administration, “I found dealing with Congress frustrating, but I felt it was my responsibility to deal with Congress, it’s the way the founders set things up.”
Rao was more circumspect on the cooperation question saying, “If there is a conflict, I would do my best. The Office of Legal Counsel says I’m not required, but there is discretion.”
Rao stayed true to her reputation as a free-market reformer by stressing in her testimony that OIRA’s role is to help “ensure that administrative agencies follow the law, base their decisions on the best possible economic and technical analysis, and fulfill presidential priorities.” That includes “minimizing regulatory burdens,” she noted, later adding that she agrees with reformers who want to extend OIRA’s authority to the independent regulatory agencies.
“Reading through OIRA’s statutory authorities as well as executive orders and OMB Guidance, I have been struck by the consistency of the principles guiding the work of the office across administrations,” she said in written testimony. “Perhaps this is one reason so many talented professionals work at OIRA and often stay for many years serving presidents of different parties.”
FEMA nominee Long—a veteran of emergency management in Alabama and Georgia-—said he “backs Trump’s budget.” But he promised to work with staff and congressional committees to better plan a regular budget allocation for anticipated disasters.
Asked about responding to man-made disasters like the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Mich., he cited his work responding to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, saying, “Every manager or responder knows they can’t afford to sit one out.”
As for FEMA’s low ratings for morale in employee surveys, Long said, “when we hire workers, I would make sure they fully understand the mission and how they fit it.” Long added that he “likes to get out and be with staff, to open up lines of communication.”
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