Outlasting Mick Mulvaney: Appropriators Can Bide Time in Budget Battles

White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney never darkened the door of the House Appropriations Committee when he was a congressman from South Carolina—except when the panel’s huge hearing room was being used to help new freshmen lawmakers get through orientation.

“I don't think I was ever in this room when I was here except to pick up the keys to my new office because this is where we did the lottery the last time I was here,” Mulvaney, now President Donald Trump’s top budget adviser, told appropriators at a recent hearing. “And I did swing down to my old office, which is now locked because I was down around the corner and they wouldn't even let me back in there.”OMB Director Mulvaney

Members of the committee might feel the same way since Mulvaney worked constantly to stymie their own efforts to enact bills to fund the federal government and even joined forces with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to force a government shutdown in 2013.

Mulvaney, who served six years in the House before being tapped to head the Office of Management and Budget, helped form the conservative House Freedom Caucus and worked in the backrooms of the Capitol to block the committee’s spending bills for years.

“I think many on this committee might see the unique irony of the position [where] you sit now versus the positions you advocated for previously,” Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), one of the panel’s “cardinals,” told Mulvaney at the session. And, despite his elevation to the White House post, “you have not changed in any way,” Graves said.

But Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and other lawmakers chose to use Mulvaney’s recent appearance at the committee to deliver the message that the fiscal year 2018 budget Trump sent to Congress in May isn’t likely to guide appropriators’ work as they put together this year’s 12 spending bills. That budget calls for lawmakers to cut domestic spending programs by more than $50 billion and shift all of the increase to Defense.

Frelinghuysen said the plan to increase spending on the Pentagon and border security is popular but there is less unity on the administration’s plan to eliminate federal money for what the administration believes are “unnecessary programs.” Mulvaney is advocating a budget that cuts some agencies—such as the State and Labor departments—by 20 percent or more.

“I'm sure we'll make our own determinations on the best and most effective use of tax dollars,” Frelinghuysen warned Mulvaney.

But besides knowing that Congress ultimately sets the government’s spending priorities, Frelinghuysen and committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) are aware of another reality as they looked down at Mulvaney from the dais: They are likely to easily outlast the OMB director, who is in a job that in recent years has seen frequent turnover.

Rep. Frelinghuysen

Since Lowey joined the committee in 1993, there have been 16 previous OMB directors, with four of those serving under President George W. Bush and seven of those in the administration of President Barack Obama. In recent years OMB directors typically have served a year and a half or two years before moving on. 

Frelinghuysen has also seen much turnover in OMB directors since he joined the committee in 1995. But there’s another lawmaker who has outlasted even more OMB directors: Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Cochran has seen almost 20 other OMB directors come and go since joining the Senate committee. David Stockman, President Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, was the head of OMB when Cochran became an appropriator in 1981.