An Extremist Holding the Purse Strings

Originally published in The New York Times.

President Trump will hardly be short of far-right cabinet members, including an education secretary who has called public schools a “dead end,” a labor secretary who has been cited for employment law violations and an Environmental Protection Agency administrator who has sued his own department.

But within the Trump team, the views of Representative Mick Mulvaney, Republican of South Carolina, his little-known choice to lead the important Office of Management and Budget, rank as among the most reactionary.

Only slivers of this were visible in Mr. Mulvaney’s uneventful confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

In fact, Mr. Mulvaney — a founding member of the Freedom Caucus with an almost perfect conservative voting record — spent his six-year congressional career leading the charge against federal spending and borrowing, voting against everything from Hurricane Sandy relief to reopening the government after the 2013 shutdown.

His intransigence placed him well to the right of Republican leadership, including former Speaker John Boehner, whom he repeatedly opposed for — get this — being excessively soft on curbing disbursements from the federal purse.

1

Not surprisingly, cutting deeply into core retirement and health care programs is at the top of his to-do list. “We have to end Medicare as we know it,” he said on Fox Business Network, soon after entering Congress in 2011. (Medicare enjoys support from 77 percent of Americans, according to a 2015 Kaiser Foundation poll.)

While Mr. Mulvaney is not alone in his terrifying views, the difference between him and other members of his deeply conservative brigade is that he will likely soon have an unusual opportunity to cement them into place; O.M.B. (as it is universally known) is the control center for the administration’s fiscal policy.

Each year, the budget office oversees the federal government’s budgeting process, receiving requests from individual agencies, analyzing them and making recommendations to the president as to what spending should be requested from Congress and what the deficit should be.

From that perch, Mr. Mulvaney will be well positioned to help excise funding for the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood, abolish the Export-Import Bank, eliminate government-financed research, raise the retirement age for Social Security to 70 and even clamp down on off-budget military spending, to name just a few of his targets.

We may already be starting to see the shadowy outlines of this kind of agenda; the new administration is reportedly considering proposals to cut $10.5 trillion of spending over the next decade, more than 40 percent of many important programs.

Mr. Mulvaney shares many extreme economic views with his first choice for the Republican nomination, the libertarian-leaning senator Rand Paul, particularly his belief that the mounting national debt is an existential crisis that must be addressed regardless of the consequences.

In that quest, the 49-year-old South Carolinian has argued for a balanced-budget amendment, a truly terrible idea that would eliminate the federal government’s ability to use deficit spending in times of economic weakness.

Similarly, he has repeatedly voted against legislation to raise the debt ceiling, without which the federal government would shut down and possibly even default on its obligations, neither of which seemed to bother the congressman.

And like his new boss, Mr. Mulvaney has suggested that if the nation’s debt continued to mount, one way to address that problem would be to push creditors to accept less than full payment.

The consequences of that, said Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, with classic Fed understatement, would be “very severe,” at a minimum resulting “in much higher borrowing costs for American households and businesses.”

The feelings are mutual. Mr. Mulvaney has repeatedly blasted the Federal Reserve’s low interest rate policies, including at a dinner held by the John Birch Society, an ultraconservative organization founded in 1958 that today could be branded alt-right.

His antipathy toward the Fed has led him to support legislation that would severely compromise the central bank’s independence. That’s among Mr. Mulvaney’s most misguided notions; the Fed’s strong response to the financial crisis played a key role in the economic recovery of the last eight years.

And then there’s the budget office’s responsibility for reviewing every major proposed regulation — as well as existing ones — which will allow him to continue his war against government rules of almost every flavor.

I’ll be curious to see how Mr. Mulvaney meshes with his new colleagues. As he acknowledged Tuesday, his unabashed advocacy of cutting Social Security and Medicare puts him at odds with his new boss.

The new president has also said that no one should lose their health care when Obamacare is replaced, while the alternatives that Mr. Mulvaney has supported would inevitably result in many losing their insurance.

In the same vein, he will surely hate Mr. Trump’s plans for enormous unfinanced tax cuts and huge infrastructure spending, which are projected to increase total deficits by $5.3 trillion over the next 10 years.

Policy differences aren’t unusual within the new team. But those who know Mr. Mulvaney say that his absolutism will make it difficult for him to make the compromises that are inevitably necessary in the policy-making process.

Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.