Political News

Shaking Up Cabinet to Shrink the Government

Posted June 21, 2018 10:10 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, spurred on by conservatives who want him to slash safety net programs, on Thursday unveiled a plan to overhaul the federal government that could have a profound effect on millions of poor and working-class Americans.

Produced over the past year by Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, it would reshuffle social welfare programs in a way that would make them easier to cut, scale back or restructure, according to several administration officials involved in the planning.

Among the most consequential ideas is a proposal to shift the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a subsistence benefit that provides aid to 42 million poor and working Americans, from the Agriculture Department to a new mega-agency that would have “welfare” in its title — a term Trump uses as a pejorative catchall for most government benefit programs.

That proposal, which includes an equally ambitious plan to merge the Education and Labor departments to consolidate workforce programs, is not likely to gain the congressional approval needed to make the changes, Mulvaney’s aides conceded in a phone call with reporters Thursday.

But the rollout has a bigger long-term purpose, said Margaret Weichert, one of Mulvaney’s deputies who drafted the proposal. She cast the proposal as a rallying cry for “small government” and said the audacity of the plan proved “why many Americans voted for this president.”

Trump, for his part, joked on Thursday that the plan was “extraordinarily boring” before TV cameras in the Cabinet Room.

But being boring in an all-too-exciting White House has provided cover for a small army of conservatives and think tank veterans who have been quietly churning out dozens of initiatives like the proposal to reshuffle the Cabinet, with the ultimate goal of dismantling the U.S. social welfare system from the inside out.

“Our guys have been in there since the start, grinding it out, and basically no one is noticing it except the smart liberals like Rachel Maddow,” said Stephen Bannon, the president’s former adviser, who believes the attack on social programs will be one of Trump’s most enduring policy achievements.

“It is one of the reasons Trump is at like 97 percent with the base. This is what the base wants,” he said. Referring to the right-wing conspiracy theorist who hosts a popular radio show and the progressive consumer activists allied with Ralph Nader, who became a force in Democratic politics in the 1970s, he added: “Trust me, it’s not Alex Jones that’s driving things. It’s these guys — they are our version of ‘Nader’s Raiders.'”

Philip Alston, a New York University professor and the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, agreed with Bannon’s assessment. “My sense is they are making very considerable progress, even though no one is paying much attention,” he said.

But Alston, author of a recent study on endemic poverty in U.S. cities and the rural South, has a different view of what Trump’s aides are trying to do. “There is a contempt for the poor that seems to permeate the president’s inner circle that seems very worrying,” he said. “It’s done under the banner of providing opportunity and seeking long-term solutions but it all seems designed to increase misery.”

The president himself is deeply disinterested in the details of policy and can identify only a handful of domestic policy aides, including Mulvaney, by name, according to current and former staff members. His policy operation during the 2016 campaign was skeletal. Aides would often watch Trump’s stump speech on TV for cues on what he wanted to do, search Google for policy proposals that seemed to be the closest fit — then draft white papers or debate talking points from the results.

As president, Trump would become so bored with the details of domestic policy that aides long ago stopped sharing all but the most top-line specifics of their plans — including the reorganization, according to several people who have worked closely with Trump.

If Trump is fuzzy on policy, he is acutely attuned to the perils of offending his base, especially older voters.

A few weeks after Trump took office, Mulvaney and a handful of other aides, including Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff, approached the president in the Oval Office to suggest a slate of entitlement changes to reduce costs in the Medicare and Social Security programs.

They were a few minutes into their pitch, according to someone familiar with the meeting, when Trump waved a dismissive hand and shouted, “No way! What else you got?”

Trump has, however, given wide latitude to conservatives like the education secretary, Betsy DeVos; the housing secretary, Ben Carson; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; the director of the Domestic Policy Council, Andrew Bremberg; and Mulvaney, who has emerged as the most provocative and hyperactive of the president’s senior policy advisers.

DeVos has been especially aggressive, pushing to loosen restrictions on for-profit colleges and enforcement of civil rights laws. She is close to Mulvaney and supported the proposal to merge her department with the Labor Department, calling it a “bold reform” in a statement.

“Artificial barriers between education and workforce programs have existed for far too long,” she added.

Democratic critics saw the new proposal as a threat to both departments, but the proposal also divided conservatives.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the House education committee who has aggressively pushed a higher education bill that would achieve the same goals, said it was “a recognition of the clear relationship between education policy at every level and the needs of the growing American workforce.”

But it was one of the rare proposals that fell flat with conservative supporters who champion Trump’s agenda to shrink the government, in part because it did not include an accounting of staff members or funding for the reorganization.

Lindsey Burke, the education policy director at the Heritage Foundation, which has steered a slew of Trump policies, said that the proposal risked increasing the federal government’s role in education and the workforce, creating more “bloat, control and federal tentacles in local schools and markets.”

For the most part, however, operatives aligned with Heritage, the Federalist Society and the sprawling Koch brothers network have been on the inside making policy.

Benjamin Hobbs, a former employee of Heritage and the Charles Koch Foundation, who received a top policy job at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was a driving force behind a proposal to raise rents on some of the poorest residents of subsidized housing by as much as 44 percent, according to two administration officials.

In a recent meeting, Hobbs raised eyebrows by claiming the increases were intended, in part, to persuade unmarried couples to move in with each other to pool rent payments, according to two people in attendance.

Carson, his boss, broadly supports the idea of reducing dependence, aides said, but was lukewarm on the idea. The backlash to the proposal was so severe that Carson, speaking this month in Detroit, wavered when asked whether he planned to back legislation needed to achieve the increases.

Rick Dearborn, another former employee at Heritage, who served as deputy chief of staff for Trump during his first year in office, steered about 70 Heritage-linked experts into policy roles in the White House and various Cabinet departments. At the same time, Bannon, who was Trump’s most influential aide at the dawn of the presidency, enlisted one of Heritage’s founders, Edwin Feulner, to help create a list of action items on scaling back social welfare programs days after Trump’s inauguration.

Heritage had just received a multimillion-dollar commitment from Bannon’s former benefactor, Rebekah Mercer, according to two people familiar with the gift. Much of the cash was informally earmarked, they said, to help Trump expand his near nascent policy operation, according to two people familiar with the details of the donation.

By early 2017, Heritage produced a government reorganization plan that served as the initial template for Thursday’s announcement. They also drafted a list of 334 policy recommendations, about half of them aimed at domestic programs for poor people or Obama-era regulations protecting low-income consumers.

“Once the transition started, we seized on the opportunity to help out and define the policy agenda of the next administration,” said Paul Winfree, a social policy expert at Heritage, who once worked for the Domestic Policy Council coordinating administration policy of social welfare programs and entitlements.

“Even when many thought Trump had no chance, Heritage researchers and alumni were working hard over on implementation plans,” said Winfree. “We went to work while much attention was paid to the palace intrigue or on personalities. Having one big personality isn’t enough to change a government. Having many good people, who know and trust each other, in the right places is the key.”

The core of Trump’s safety net policy is an expansion of work requirements to foster self-sufficiency among recipients of food assistance, Medicaid and housing subsidies to reduce dependence on the government. “Our goal is to get people on the path to self-sufficiency,” Bremberg said.

Its real purpose, advocates for poor people claim, is to kick hundreds of thousands of the needy off the federal rolls, to cut taxes for the rich.

That effort dovetailed with a separate but related rollback in the enforcement of fair housing, educational equity, payday lending and civil rights cases pursued aggressively under the Obama administration intended to protect vulnerable populations from discrimination and abusive business practices.

“It’s a war on the poor, pure and simple,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has challenged several Trump administration policies in federal court.

The pace of administration activity in all of these areas has picked up sharply this year, in part because many of the conservatives inside the administration believe Trump’s political and legal troubles will limit their window for action after the midterm elections. Over the past two weeks alone, Trump’s team unsuccessfully tried to ram through a $15 billion bill clawing back domestic spending, Mulvaney fired the 25-member advisory board at the Consumer Financial Protection Board, where he serves as the acting director, and administration lawyers challenged an Obama-era anti-discrimination rule that resulted in greater funding for projects in minority neighborhoods.

What remains unclear is whether the flurry of activity will have a long-term effect on the trajectory of federal spending and the management of safety net programs.

This year, the Heritage Foundation reported that Trump had checked off 64 percent of their policy checklist. But dozens of those victories were partial or pyrrhic.

Some proposals, including Medicaid waivers that allow states to impose work requirements and the reorientation of enforcement across an array of federal agencies, are moving ahead despite court challenges. But many others, especially those in Mulvaney’s dead-on-arrival budget proposals, have been blocked by Democrats with the help of Senate Republicans.

As Mulvaney was pitching his reorganization plan to the Cabinet and news media Thursday, the House was passing a farm bill that included stiffer work requirements for SNAP recipients. Senate Republicans have already vowed to kill that provision.

A handful of Mulvaney’s recommendations, including changes to federal personnel management and State Department overseas aid programs, can be accomplished through executive action alone.

But many other parts of Mulvaney’s reorganization plan are likely to face similar resistance as work requirements, including efforts to consolidate fisheries and wildlife programs, aggregate food safety and inspection programs in the Agriculture Department, shift rural housing programs to HUD and move the Army Corps of Engineers to civilian agencies, among others.

“This is an art-of-the-possible exercise,” Weichert said.