Ordinarily, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) prides itself on quiet competence. But the agency’s current leadership has stopped doing its basic homework. It is an under-noticed reason for a budget deal that embarrassed the President.
Go back seven weeks. When the Trump Administration released its budget on March 16, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney focused all his public appearances on fiscal year 2018. But OMB also sent up a second proposal that would cut $18 billion out of domestic spending in fiscal year 2017. Oddly, the proposal had no specifics. It didn’t even have a justification, other than explaining that the cuts offset just over half of new spending. (Why that much? Also a mystery.) And with just under half the fiscal year over, key House Republicans like Tom Cole and Hal Rogers, rock-solid conservatives open to cuts, immediately panned the idea.
Eventually, OMB sent up “technical assistance” specifying potential cuts. “Technical assistance” is OMB-speak for proposals meant for the appropriators but not the public. But this “TA” leaked. The Trump Administration proposed, halfway through the fiscal year, to immediately eliminate huge swaths of the government: the entire Corporation for National Service, the entire TIGER transportation grant program, the entire community development financial institutions program, the entire community service program for seniors, large amounts of federal research and development, large amounts of foreign aid, and so on.
But again, these specifics weren’t really specifics. For cutting $1.2 billion in funding at the National Institutes of Health, the OMB write-up, the entire thing, read as follows: “These savings could be achieved by eliminating spending on new IDeA grants ($50 million) and reducing research grants ($1,182 million).” That’s a billion dollars in a handful of words. Other arguments ran to a few sentences, with summary judgments: “duplicative,” “ineffective,” “fragmented.” Given the radicalism of the cuts, it was an abdication of reason.
And in the end, Congress added $2 billion to NIH.
Republican leaders more aligned with the President could have won more. To their credit, these leaders didn’t really try. The blithe nihilism was too much. And OMB, which is supposed to be the White House’s strategic nerve center, ended up like a teenage troublemaker hurling crumpled-up balls at the teacher.