Trump’s budget chief pick prepares to run confirmation gantlet

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget committees will hold confirmation hearings for Russell Vought, OMB’s acting director

Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, arrives to testify during the House Budget Committee hearing on “the president's 2021 Budget” in the Cannon House Office Building on Feb. 12, 2020.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, arrives to testify during the House Budget Committee hearing on “the president's 2021 Budget” in the Cannon House Office Building on Feb. 12, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 2, 2020 at 5:01am

Russell Vought, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Office of Management and Budget director, was confirmed for that agency’s No. 2 slot in early 2018 after his former boss, Vice President Mike Pence, cast the tiebreaking vote. 

Having run the agency as acting director since January 2019 when his predecessor, Mick Mulvaney, became acting White House chief of staff, Vought now gets his shot to drop the “acting” moniker from his title.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget committees, which share jurisdiction, will hold confirmation hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

Two years ago no Democrats supported Vought, a behind-the-scenes but forceful conservative voice during a dozen years as a congressional aide and then at Heritage Action, the grassroots arm of the Heritage Foundation, the Washington think tank that has helped shape Trump’s budget and regulatory policies. 

On paper, the math for the 44-year-old Vought is easier than it was in 2018: There are now two more Republicans in the Senate, holding a 53-47 margin. In practice, Vought’s confirmation has to run a gantlet through two committees where just one GOP defection could sink him, as no Democratic support is expected. 

Already reviled by Democrats, Vought has since built on his reputation as a conservative true believer with a fierce loyalty to the president’s directives — whether it’s building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, holding up military aid to Ukraine or other policy goals. Vought has referred to his office as “the president’s Swiss Army knife,” employing every tool at its disposal within legal means to get things done.

That legality has sometimes been questioned. The Government Accountability Office said the Trump administration violated a 1974 budget law in withholding money for Ukraine, which sparked only the third impeachment of a sitting president. In response to the GAO ruling, which is nonbinding, Vought shot back via Twitter that his office “complied with the law every step of the way.”

The lone GOP vote for one of the impeachment articles was Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah — who also happens to sit on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel, which has an 8-6 ratio of Republicans to Democrats. A tie vote would occur if Romney crossed the aisle, bottling up Vought in committee.

Some Republican sources were confident Romney wouldn’t tank Vought’s nomination. The former GOP presidential nominee’s aides wouldn’t comment ahead of the confirmation hearings, saying only that he was “reviewing” the nomination.

Helping the ‘wagon-pullers’

Vought is an unapologetic fiscal and social conservative who says he came from a “blue-collar family” and avoids the limelight. “I am the son of an electrician and a public school teacher,” Vought said during a 2017 confirmation hearing. “I know what they went through to balance their budget and save for the future.”

Opening a window to his budgeting philosophy, Vought said his “test” for federal spending is the “wagon-pullers” or “forgotten men and women” who support the economy. “Did a particular program, or spending increase, help the nameless wagon-pullers across our country, working hard at their job, trying to provide for their family and future without the luxury of watching C-SPAN at that particular moment to know that we might increase their burden at that minute,” he said. 

Vought was a vice president at Heritage Action since it was formed in 2010, before Mulvaney brought him on as an adviser at OMB early in the Trump administration. Earlier he’d served as policy director for the House Republican Conference under Pence during the vice president’s tenure as a GOP lawmaker from Indiana. Vought had also been executive director of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and an aide to former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

Vought has been a relentless advocate of cutting spending, deregulation and promoting federalism, or leaving more responsibility to states and lessening the role of the federal government.

During Vought’s 2017 confirmation hearings, Democrats criticized him for the steep proposed spending cuts and tax cuts in Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget, which Vought had a hand in writing.

Democrats also seized on other issues, with none more inflammatory than the accusation by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that Vought used “hateful” and “Islamophobic” language in a 2016 article. The piece by Vought defended his alma mater Wheaton College’s efforts to fire professor Larycia Hawkins over a theological disagreement related to Islam and Christianity at the college. Vought denied that portions of his article quoted by Sanders were Islamophobic and said the quotes were taken out of context.

Democratic ire toward Vought has only grown since he assumed the acting director role last year. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who sits on the Budget Committee, said in a statement that he will oppose Vought’s nomination. 

“Russ Vought was a critical impeachment witness who defied a Congressional subpoena to protect Donald Trump,” Wyden said, referring to orders by House Democrats to testify on the Ukraine withholding. “Nobody who places loyalty to party over loyalty to country deserves the honor of serving the American taxpayers.” The White House said the subpoenas were invalid.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security panel, is examining Vought’s “entire body of work, focusing on the year he has spent in the acting position and the many critical decisions Mr. Vought has played a role in, including the ongoing COVID response,” an aide said.

The GOP’s 11-10 margin on the Budget Committee is narrower than on the Homeland Security panel. Vought’s chances before the Budget panel appear more secure as there is no Republican on the panel who appears inclined to oppose him.

Foreign aid fights

During Vought’s time running OMB, the budget office has infuriated Democrats and caused concern among some Republicans through efforts to cut foreign aid, impose conditions on some public assistance, deregulate the economy and cut nondefense spending.

Beyond the Ukraine imbroglio, the White House has repeatedly sought to curb spending on foreign aid programs appropriated by Congress through creative use of the 1974 budget law, which was originally intended to clamp down on the executive branch’s ability to do end runs around congressional spending directives. 

In April, House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., introduced legislation that he said would reclaim congressional authority over how taxpayer dollars are spent, including by imposing penalties such as suspension without pay or removal from office for violations of the 1974 law.

OMB’s decision not to include an economic forecast in its upcoming summer budget update required by law is also bound to elicit criticism during Vought’s confirmation hearings.

In its budget proposal in February, the administration forecast that the U.S. economy would grow by 3.1 percent in 2020 and 3 percent in 2021. Economic activity has plunged, however, since states began shutting down business and travel in March to try to control the coronavirus pandemic. The Congressional Budget Office last month said it expects the U.S. economy to shrink by 5.6 percent this year, which would be the largest contraction on record going back to 1948.

Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy for the center-right American Action Forum, said the administration “almost certainly has updated its forecast and probably does so regularly” but “simply appears unwilling to be responsible to the public for its forecast.” A senior administration official countered that the forecast is being skipped because the economic situation is changing so rapidly that it would not be meaningful.

Trump’s latest executive order on deregulation, aimed at promoting economic recovery after the pandemic, is also likely to draw scrutiny from Democrats. 

The order directs agencies to make changes to regulations that might “inhibit economic recovery” and to explore making those changes permanent. The administration said it has taken more than 600 actions to suspend, waive or modify regulations to fight the pandemic. Among the initiatives that could be made permanent, officials said, are easing of restrictions on electronic meetings between doctors and patients and loosening of rules on transporting livestock and food by truck.