President-elect Joe Biden's transition is warning that a lack of cooperation from the Trump administration's Office of Management and Budget is making it difficult for the incoming team to determine coronavirus-related spending needs and could delay the fiscal 2022 budget process.
"There are also health and economic repercussions to this obstruction. OMB is integral to our federal government efficiently and effectively addressing COVID. OMB leadership's refusal to fully cooperate impairs our ability to identify opportunities to maximize the relief going out to Americans during the pandemic," Yohannes Abraham, the executive director of the Biden-Harris transition, said Wednesday.
The start of an administration often leads to a delay in the first release of the president's budget from the usual February date, but Abraham indicated the lack of assistance from current OMB officials could further complicate things next year.
"The production of the budget takes many person hours and it takes the analytical support that has been a part of OMB's engagement with prior transitions that we have not been in receipt of," Abraham told reporters Wednesday. "And it leaves us in the dark, as it relates to COVID-related expenditures and critical gaps."
On Thursday, OMB Director Russell Vought wrote to former Sen. Ted Kaufman, who has been leading the Biden transition efforts, to refute the claims about lack of cooperation in COVID response.
"To your specific criticisms with respect to COVID, as you are aware, your team has been briefed by 0MB, as well as the relevant agencies, on Operation Warp Speed and other COVID relief efforts, including the various funding streams in use for these efforts. Furthermore, there is record of your team accessing these critical documents just last week," Vought wrote.
At the top level, incoming White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the team was aware that additional funding would be required for coronavirus response, including vaccine distribution infrastructure.
"This intentionally generated opacity makes it harder for our government to protect the American people," Abraham said.
On Monday, Biden said stonewalling by OMB and the Defense Department posed a danger to national security, a situation he said was "nothing short, in my view, of irresponsibility."
Abraham said a great deal of work that needs to be done on the budget as well.
"We were hopeful, we continue to be hopeful that that work could be done in partnership with career staff at OMB, and that they would be given the ability to — as they have done in the past —work with an incoming administration, but there's no doubt that that lack of cooperation will cause a delay," he said.
Not if Vought gets his way.
"OMB staff are working on this Administration's policies and will do so until this Administration's final day in office," Vought wrote to Kaufman. "Redirecting staff and resources to draft your team's budget proposals is not an OMB transition responsibility."
Psaki also confirmed Wednesday the plan for the Biden administration to implement a regulatory freeze memo starting after noon on Inauguration Day to stop midnight rulemakings and last minute executive actions and policy guidance from Trump's administration. That is a customary part of a presidential transition, but it may be all the more important given the complications in the current transition.
Psaki also said in a response to a question that the outgoing administration may make policy maneuvers that cannot be easily halted through a freeze memo. One such action could be the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is reported by the New York Times to be considering such an act.
"There are additional actions that the Trump administration and members of the team can take in the weeks ahead, that are damaging and destructive to our policies, whether they're national security policies or domestic policies, and there are some tools that an incoming administration and president has," Psaki said.
One regulatory change by the Trump administration's Labor Department — to make it easier to classify workers as independent contractors — could be thwarted by a Biden freeze, she said. Allowing the change to go through would let businesses "avoid minimum wage and overtime protections," Psaki said.
During the transition press briefing, she also reiterated other Trump executive actions that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have already committed to upending.
"In addition to the regulatory freeze memo, President Biden has promised to rescind harmful Trump executive orders and deliver on our promises and the promises he and Vice President Harris made on the campaign trail, including by reinstating protections for Dreamers, rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, reversing President Trump's environmental rollbacks that have made our air and water dirtier and protecting and strengthening the Affordable Care Act," Psaki said.