Mick Mulvaney thinks he knows what to expect now that he has accepted a second full-time job from President Trump to go along with being budget director. “It is going to be a lot of extra work,” he said this week when he assumed his new duties as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, assuring reporters that hard work is “not something new” to him.
But with only seven days to go before a possible government shutdown and 67 days before the deadline for submitting next year’s budget, veterans of federal budget-making think it has yet to hit him how challenging his next two months will be. “There are days I’m sure he will find not enough time to do the jobs that he has,” said Jim Nussle, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush and was chairman of the House Budget Committee. “It’s a daunting task. But I’m sure he is up to the job.”
Stan Collender, who worked for both the House and Senate Budget Committees and is considered the leading expert on the budget, said Mulvaney is going to be tested more than any of his predecessors in the OMB post. “OMB is an all-consuming job,” Collender said. “I can’t imagine any other OMB director being willing to take on what Mulvaney appears to be so eager to do, which is take that second position.”
What is particularly striking is that he is donning the second hat at precisely the busiest time of year for his office as it struggles to complete the budget in time to submit it by the Feb. 5 deadline set by the 1990 Budget Act. “Traditionally, the staff has to work through Christmas and they are racing to get the budget completed,” said Collender, who now is vice president of Qorvis/MSL Group.
The process is further complicated this year by what Collender calls “a triple whammy”—a part-time director, a possible shutdown, uncertainty about the budget numbers for the current fiscal year, and a looming tax bill that will have a major impact on the budget’s economic forecast, revenue levels, and spending levels on health care.
Nussle, who is now president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association, compared the situation to the Olympics. “You would call it a degree of difficulty that’s been added. … It is a much greater degree of difficulty because of those factors.” Alice Rivlin, budget director in Bill Clinton’s first term, stressed that there is nothing normal about the situation. “Normal is bad enough,” she said. “But this is a time when the processes are all in chaos, and one would think that the OMB director would have more than a normal December role, rather than less.”
Mulvaney does not deny the challenge. But he insisted he can handle the added duties at the CFPB. “Being budget director is a full-time job,” he said. “There is no question about it. This is going to be a heavy workload for the next couple of months or weeks or however long I end up being here.” He based his confidence on the team he has put together at OMB and the team he inherited at CFPB. “My guess is that while it is going to be a lot of extra work, we will be able to do both jobs for a period of time.”
Part of that team is his director of communications at OMB, John Czwartacki, who said Mulvaney has ordered all “extraneous meetings” to be taken off his schedule. “Those things are not happening now. Mick’s time is now focused on his day jobs. He is meeting with the staff and with people related directly to the mission at hand. … Right now, he’s fixated on using every ounce of bandwidth he has on the two jobs he has.”
Both Czwartacki and Mulvaney contend the dual task is eased by geography, since the CFPB offices are just across the street from Mulvaney’s offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “It is very easy to do this,” Czwartacki said. “We just go out this 17th Street entrance of the EOB and walk across the street, and the other building is right there. So, logistically, it is a piece of cake.”
The timing is what really strikes budget veterans. “It is probably the busiest quarter for a budget director, no question about that,” said Nussle, who added that Mulvaney actually has three jobs, not two. He said being a senior adviser to the president can also be a full-time job.
Nussle said he understands the agencies are in what’s called “final budget pass-back” now, with the Defense Department scheduled on Friday to get its last chance to make its case to OMB. In a normal budget year, Collender said, OMB would be close to “locking the data base,” which means the requests from departments and agencies would already be sorted, with final decisions being made that could be reversed only by appeals to the president himself. Czwartacki said that point hasn’t yet been reached this year.
“The process is on track, and we are in the middle of that process. Numbers have been shared, and agencies are reacting to them and passing that information back,” he said, insisting, “All this will be mostly wrapped up before Christmas. … The pedal has been to the floor and it has not let up. Traditionally, this is when OMB does its magic.”
From the perspective of those who are veterans of the process, it might take magic to meet the deadline set in the Budget Act for submitting the budget by the first Monday in February. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush always met that deadline. Clinton missed it in two of his years, and President Obama only made it twice in his two terms—proving, said Rivlin, “The sky doesn’t fall if the president’s budget isn’t submitted by a certain date.”
Czwartacki, though, remains hopeful. “I can’t definitively say that the submission will be on that day. But no one has said otherwise, that we’re not targeting that date. That is still very much in the mix and the plan.” Nussle said there are few consequences if Mulvaney misses that target. “We never did find,” he said, “the budget penitentiary in the basement of the Capitol where we could put all the people who violated the budget caps or sequestration or deadlines.”