Notes on President-Elect Trump’s Pick for Budget Director

In Mick Mulvaney, the incoming president will have a spending hawk calling the fiscal shots for science agencies.

Another piece of the transition puzzle fell into place recently when President-elect Trump announced his selection of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) to head the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the White House office that oversees fiscal, regulatory, and management matters. Among other things, OMB plays a central role coordinating the president’s annual budget request to Congress. That means reviewing and approving agency budgets before they’re issued publicly, and mandating changes to those budgets when deemed necessary. A major job for OMB staff – most of whom are career civil servants – is to find ways to constrain spending while balancing agency needs with the views of the president. The OMB director also co-authors the annual memo outlining major science and technology priorities for the coming year, alongside the president's science team. Thus, the OMB director wields significant influence over the fiscal agenda, including for science agencies. Mulvaney’s track record as a foe of federal spending and deficits and proponent of smaller government will be directly relevant as President Trump’s budget watchdog and disciplinarian.

On the science front, substantial coverage this week has focused on Mulvaney’s views on federal funds for Zika research. During the September Congressional fight over how much to provide and whether to offset it, Mulvaney posted a Facebook update in which he questioned the relationship between Zika and birth defects, and asked whether “we really need government-funded research at all” given this alleged uncertainty. Like others in the incoming administration, Mulvaney is also a skeptic on climate, referring to “baseless claims regarding global warming” on his 2010 election campaign website (archived here).

Beyond these remarks, Mulvaney doesn’t have an enormous track record directly related to science funding, though many of his broader positions are certainly relevant, and there have been a few instances where he’s tackled government science and technology investments head-on. Here are some notes for the science-interested observer:

Mulvaney is part of a coalition that has fought for deep cuts to discretionary spending. The discretionary budget – the part of the budget Congress has to allocate annually through the appropriations process – only represents about a third of all federal outlays, but contains virtually all science and technology spending. Changes in the discretionary budget have a big influence on science agencies, as it all tends to move up or down together to varying degrees.

Mulvaney is a member of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) and a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, both of which have regularly targeted discretionary spending as a source for deficit reduction. The older and larger RSC issues annual budgets intended as alternatives to the main House GOP budget, and the RSC typically takes a harder line on spending than their colleagues. For instance, the most recent RSC proposal for FY 2017 recommended cutting the discretionary budget by an additional $1 trillion below the current caps over the next ten years. This would have been good for an 8.6 percent cumulative reduction below sequestration levels, more than recommended by the House Budget Committee (see Figure 1). The RSC plan also sought to break the most recent budget deal via a 9.0 percent cut to the discretionary budget in FY 2017 alone, compared with the previously agreed-upon flat funding. The flat spending caps were too much for Mulvaney’s Freedom Caucus, which voted to oppose the main Republican budget that respected the terms of the prior deal.

Importantly, the burden for these cuts would have been entirely carried by the nondefense side of the budget, which houses the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and all other science agencies outside the defense realm. Under the RSC plan, the nondefense budget would have been cut by $1.4 trillion or 25.0 percent over ten years (see Figure 2), while defense spending would have seen a $406 billion or 6.8 percent increase over that time. In just the current year, FY 2017, the nondefense budget would have been deeply cut by 22.9 percent. This all would have meant a severe round of cuts for science agencies to rival, and likely exceed, the original sequestration of a few years ago, with very limited possibility of recovery in subsequent years.

At the same time, the RSC preference for defense spending might bode well for the defense science and technology enterprise, which among other things is a major funder of university research. However, Mulvaney has occasionally broken with his party through a critical stance on defense spending as well – notably by referring to the Pentagon’s war budget as a “slush fund.”

Beyond these organized efforts, Mulvaney also personally attempted sweeping cuts to the nondefense budget on at least one occasion. In February 2011, less than two months after taking office, Mulvaney proposed an amendment to the FY 2011 appropriations package that would have brought nondefense spending accounts back to 2006 levels. At the time, science agency budgets were already being trimmed (see Figure 3 for context), but Mulvaney’s amendment would have substantively accelerated these reductions. A rough calculation suggests the amendment would have meant one-time cuts of 8.7 percent for NIH and 11.0 percent for NASA. In addition, NSF and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science would have seen multiple years of growth under the America COMPETES Act rolled back, resulting in respective single-year cuts of 19.8 percent and 26.8 percent. The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated.

Mulvaney once attempted to cut DOE science and energy research programs by 24 percent. In accord with his stance on discretionary spending, Mulvaney has tended to favor efforts to cut or constrain dollars for science agencies, such as his 2012 vote in support of a failed amendment to cut $1.3 billion – nearly a fifth of the budget – from the National Science Foundation. On one occasion, Mulvaney attempted to lead such an effort himself. In June 2012, during floor consideration of the FY 2013 Energy and Water bill, then-freshman Mulvaney offered an unsuccessful amendment to cut several DOE programs by 24 percent each, including the Office of Science, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and the Fossil Energy R&D program (on the latter, Mulvaney remarked, “Yes, a Republican is actually here…arguing that we should get rid of what my colleagues across the aisle would call subsidies for Big Oil.”). The amendment did exclude those research and technology programs administered by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the nondefense Office of Nuclear Energy, as well as other DOE activities related to radioactive waste cleanup.

He has expressed skepticism of manufacturing innovation and technology programs. The attempted revival of American manufacturing through initiatives like the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation has been a major priority for government in the Obama years. Many of these efforts have sought industrial partnerships to accelerate technology diffusion and boost productivity, with a particular eye towards clean energy. But Mulvaney gave an opposing view – not uncommon among some Republicans – during a 2011 hearing before the Joint Economic Committee on domestic manufacturing strategy:

“We heard some testimony from Senator Stabenow before, and I think one of you gentlemen mentioned the Japanese policies on advanced batteries. I think for every success story that a government can point to like that, there are more and more failures. I remember when I was a kid I think the Japanese government was involved in the beta research for Betamax, and then more recently I think they were heavily invested in plasma TVs versus LEDs, or something like that. So I think every time there is one of those success stories, there are a lot more failures. The government simply does not have the information or the proper motivation available to it to make decisions about where investments are properly made. So I am one of those landscape, level the playing field type of guys…We are giving tremendous incentives to various green energy segments, and my fear is that we are siphoning capital and simply siphoning creativity away from what actually might be working. We are sitting here today, for example, encouraging wind. My concern is that, by doing so, we are drawing resources away from something that might be more productive than wind energy.”

Mulvaney voted to zero out funding for the American Community Survey. A major source of socioeconomic data, but also a flashpoint for partisan controversy, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) was targeted for elimination in May 2012. The House floor amendment to the FY 2013 Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill, offered by Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL), was approved with 232 votes in favor, of which Mulvaney was one (note the provision did not survive the Senate). The following month, during a Joint Economic Committee hearing, Mulvaney seemed open to the idea of privatizing the survey.

Other notes. Mulvaney has also voted to prevent funding for political science research at the National Science Foundation. As a member of the Small Business Committee, Mulvaney has worked on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which provides R&D funds to help small firms bridge the “valley of death.” And as the Federal Times notes, open data and analytics may be an item of interest to the new OMB Director, should he be approved.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen how these and other views will be integrated into budget plans from the new Trump Administration. An important thing to remember is that many decisions don’t actually end up on the OMB director’s desk. Much of the budget formulation process is in the hands of career civil servants, who represent a collective reservoir of knowledge about the agencies they oversee, and handle many of the more granular decisions on their own. As a recent Yale Law Journal article puts it:

To be sure, the OMB Director makes the ultimate decision about what to recommend to the President about each agency’s budget request. The White House policy councils and other White House offices may also get involved in specific budget decisions related to high-profile policy issues. However, the number of issues open for discussion and debate shrinks as the agency’s budget request moves up the chain of command from the [OMB staff offices] to the Director.

With that caveat in mind, there are a few possibilities worth considering. Mulvaney’s past comments suggest technology demonstration and industrial productivity programs – especially those on clean energy manufacturing favored by the Obama Administration – may find themselves under scrutiny, joining climate research and social science as potential targets. While discovery science programs tend to receive more bipartisan support in Congress, Mulvaney has certainly shown a willingness to cut spending there as well – though less so for Department of Defense activities. In the broader context, the jury is still out on how the Trump Administration will balance its views on science with what may be yet another attempt at nondefense discretionary cuts – something Mulvaney and Trump seem to agree on.