The dramatic transformation of Mick Mulvaney, from a congressman who was a fierce opponent of almost any increase in spending to an Office of Management and Budget director flacking for a spending bill that does exactly that, has been a stark one.
This week, Mulvaney took center stage as a defender of the congressional spending bill, which increases both defense and domestic spending. Mulvaney trumpeted the bill, which passed both the House and Senate this week, as a big win for President Donald Trump and the Republicans. The bill ultimately passed with more Democratic votes than Republicans.
And it’s a bill that some of his former colleagues feel quite certain he himself would not have voted for as a congressman just two months ago.
“No,” Rep. Mark Meadows told BuzzFeed News without hesitating, when asked if Mulvaney would have supported this bill. “I don’t think so. But you know, I don’t know.” Meadows, who chairs of the hardline House Freedom Caucus of which Mulvaney was a founding member, was himself a no-vote on the bill, as was almost the entire group.
In 2012, Mulvaney sponsored an amendment to freeze Pentagon spending. In 2015, he partnered with then Democratic Rep. Chris van Hollen to oppose increases in Pentagon spending, threatening to upend Republican efforts to fund the government.
On Tuesday, he told reporters that Republicans had won big in this fiscal year 2017 funding bill because they had increased defense spending without matching it dollar for dollar in a domestic spending increase, as Democrats had previously insisted.
It “almost defies logic that the Democrats would allow us to have such a huge win,” Mulvaney said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “We got $21 billion worth of additional defense spending in exchange for roughly $4 or $5 billion worth of non-defense spending.”
It’s a disparity that has not gone unnoticed.
“There’s an ever widening circle of ironies that seem to go with his newfound positions versus the ones he held a couple of months ago. And there are obviously limitations to what any of us can do based on elected office, but this is about as abrupt an about face as I can remember in a long time,” one House Republican told BuzzFeed News.
OMB did not respond to a request for comment.
Many of his former colleagues in the Freedom Caucus say they don’t fault him for it, though his support did nothing to convince them to support the bill.
“He’s got his product and he works for the president. We all respect that,” said Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, a Freedom Caucus member who pronounced himself very displeased with the bill.
Meadows echoed that sentiment, saying he still speaks with Mulvaney “on a daily basis if I need to.”
“I just have to learn to appreciate the difficulties in negotiating a position that’s not necessarily always strong,” Meadows said.
It’s how Mulvaney himself described his situation in March, when he appeared on Meet The Press. Asked if his new vantage point made him regret voting the way he did in the past, Mulvaney replied: “No. I've always thought that I do the best job I could to represent the folks in South Carolina. But now I'm the president's budget director, and I think we put out a really, really good budget.”
The difference between those two roles is something Mulvaney was aware of before he took the job. “He and I discussed it,” Al Simpson, Mulvaney’s former Chief of Staff, told BuzzFeed News.
But Mulvaney’s impact as OMB Director, Simpson noted, wasn’t just in what he said publicly. “You can make a lot of difference at things in regulatory type stuff as well as budgetary stuff. It’s a pretty appealing job,” he said.
Republicans who often found themselves on the opposite side of Mulvaney when he was in congress also expressed understanding. “Mick Mulvaney is the same person or character he was,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, a member of leadership who chairs the House Republican campaign arm. “But sometimes where you stand depends on where you sit.
“I think Mick is actually doing a great job, and I think that he’s doing the job that he was hired to do, and that’s to represent the president and what the president wants to do, regardless of whether that directly lines up with what his old district in south Carolina did,” said Florida Rep. Tom Rooney, who says he golfs with Mulvaney.
Arizona Rep. David Schweikert, a member of the Freedom Caucus who counts himself a close friend of the OMB director, said suggesting inconsistencies in Mulvaney’s positions was oversimplifying things.
When Mulvaney was in the House, Schweikert said, “There are some things he fixated on,” but there were others “he just sort of accepted as built into society.”
Schweikert said he felt Mulvaney was selling this bill as a stepping stone, something that had to get done to allow them to move onto more important things.
“He was saying, ‘look this helps set us up for where we’re going.’… And he tried to make the point that you had to get everything you can, get it off the table, so you can get to work because without it, this would just continue to freeze up the process,” Schweikert added.
But others gawked at the first instance of Mulvaney flacking for something he might well have been attacking as a member of congress. It was a conflict that seemed inevitable when Mulvaney took the job. For instance, the South Carolina congressman had advocated aggressively for entitlement reform, and now he was going to be OMB director for a president who had promised not to touch entitlements. It’s a conflict some House Republicans struggle to square.
“I don’t know how you put those two together,” said the Republican House member. “Other than say, either you didn’t really believe it in the first place, or you did believe it but you’ve sort of resigned yourself to believing you can do a greater good in this position and at least temporarily disposing of those formerly held beliefs.”