“I’d like to think that’s why he hired me,” Mulvaney told Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee at one point.
Trump’s selection of Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget surprised many in Washington, given that the third-term congressman had been one of the most outspoken debt and deficit hawks in the House. While Mulvaney has backed Speaker Paul Ryan’s drive to partially privatize Medicare, Trump sought to differentiate himself from his GOP presidential rivals by denouncing that plan and pledging to protect entitlements. He’s also vowed to pursue the kind of major spending package on infrastructure that Mulvaney and other conservatives in Congress opposed when it was proposed by the Obama administration. Trump has seemed to embrace another entitlement change proposed by Republicans on Capitol Hill—shifting Medicaid, which provides healthcare coverage to low-income people, to a block-grant program in which each state would get a fixed sum of money, potentially less than what they currently receive from the federal government. Currently, the amount of money a state receives is based on how many people there enroll in Medicaid.
Mulvaney’s supporters presented him to the Senate as a straight-shooter who would give Trump the unvarnished truth about the budget, and he embraced that characterization in his testimony. “I haven’t exactly been a shy member of Congress in my six years here, and I don’t expect to end that here today or if I am confirmed as director of OMB,” Mulvaney said.
The entitlement question dominated the hearing, far more than another issue that had threatened to complicate Mulvaney’s confirmation: his disclosure, in filings to the committee, that he had failed to pay more than $15,000 in federal income taxes on a household employee his family hired to help with their triplets in the early 2000s. Unpaid taxes have derailed nominees in the past, but after Chairman Mike Enzi of Wyoming gave Mulvaney the chance to explain, just one Democrat raised the issue again for the rest of his testimony.
He was contrite, telling the senators that he had considered the employee “a babysitter” and that it never occurred to him that he’d have to pay taxes on her until he saw a now-standard inquiry about household employees on a government questionnaire two days after his nomination.
“It became immediately clear to me that I’d made a mistake and that the IRS viewed our babysitter as a household employee for whom we should have withheld taxes,” Mulvaney said. “I did the only thing I knew to do, which is simply tell everybody who I thought would care.” That included Trump and the Senate. He reported having repaid the federal taxes and said he would pay any states levies, penalties, and fines he might owe.
Senators were far more interested in Mulvaney’s position on entitlements, and as the hearing unfolded, both Democrats and Republicans pressed him on his differences with Trump. In this case, however, it was Republican senators who wanted Mulvaney to repudiate the president. Mulvaney stopped short of that, but when Graham asked him if he would warn Trump that ignoring the rising cost of entitlements would imperil his ability to drive down the debt, Mulvaney replied that he would. Corker went even further. “Mr. Trump did say some things during the campaign that I wish he had not said,” he said. “Totally unrealistic. They make no sense whatsoever.”