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Why Did Trump Pick The Same Person To Run Two Major Agencies?

As Trump tweets, government acts. Welcome to Meanwhile, our recurring look at what federal agencies are up to and how their work affects people’s lives.

The bizarre situation at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — in which two different people are claiming that they are its acting director — could easily be addressed by President Trump. He could nominate someone to replace outgoing CFPB director Richard Cordray, and Republicans in the Senate could quickly confirm that person.1

But Trump helped create this situation when he took the odd step of designating White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to run the CFPB until a permanent director is appointed. For a moment, let’s put aside what Democrats say, namely that the 2010 law that created the CFPB was explicitly written to prevent a president from picking an interim director who was not confirmed by the Senate, thereby making Leandra English, who was Cordray’s deputy, the rightful inheritor of this job. Let’s also put aside what appears to be a test of wills between Trump and Cordray.2

It’s fairly unusual to take a person running a major part of the executive branch — Mulvaney heads the Office of Management and Budget — and give them a second big job. More than 1,600 people work at the CFPB, which is more than triple the number who work at the OMB. Mulvaney is already a member of Trump’s cabinet and a key player in dealing with Congress on issues like tax policy.

Under the law (the Federal Vacancies Reform Act) that the White House cited in defending Trump’s appointee of Mulvaney to run the agency, Trump could have picked English, another senior employee at CFPB or any of the more than 200 people serving in the Trump administration who have been confirmed by the Senate to their current positions.3 Trump has been highly critical of the CFPB, so it’s not surprising he would not choose anyone from its ranks. Jobs that require Senate confirmation are generally fairly senior, so Trump had to pick someone with a substantial existing portfolio, although it did not have to be a cabinet secretary.

Indeed, if you wanted an aggressive OMB and CFPB creating and enforcing new rules and regulations, putting Mulvaney in charge of both departments would seem unwise.

But what if you don’t want those agencies doing that much? What if you campaigned against the executive orders signed by your predecessor? What if you and your party just enacted a law to roll back one of the CFPB’s major new regulations? What if your one-time top political adviser had described your White House’s goal as the “deconstruction of the administrative state?”

Trump tends not to explicitly call for the federal government to simply do much less. But if you look at his administration’s policies, it’s hard to conclude that that’s not the goal. Trump has left open a number of key jobs at the State Department, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pushing out many long-term diplomats. The open enrollment period for Obamacare, which in theory is one of the most important functions handled by the Department of Health and Human Services, started on Nov. 1. But Trump waited until Nov. 13 — almost six weeks after the resignation of then-HHS Secretary Tom Price — to nominate Alex Azar to replace him. Azar has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and there does not appear to be much urgency around this appointment. Trump has had many fewer people confirmed to top executive branch posts than his three predecessors did at the same point in their terms, and the main factor in that discrepancy is that Trump is simply not nominating anyone for many jobs.

In late February, just weeks after his inauguration, Trump suggested that he would take this approach.

“When I see a story about ‘Donald Trump didn’t fill hundreds and hundreds of jobs,’ it’s because, in many cases, we don’t want to fill those jobs,” Trump told Fox News.

“A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” he added. “You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.”

Back then, it wasn’t clear if that was an indication of Trump’s thinking or the president just giving an excuse for his administration’s slow pace in getting people appointed. Almost a year into the Trump presidency, it now seems clear that he wants a federal government that does less, or does less on certain issues, or at least does what it does with fewer people.

CLARIFICATION (Nov. 29, 11:50 a.m.): This article has been updated to make clear that Trump’s options in picking someone to lead the CFPB were limited by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

Footnotes

  1. Executive branch nominations require only a majority of Senate votes, so the 48 Democrats in the chamber could not block the appointment.

  2. Trump had to know he would deeply irritate those who support the CFPB’s mission by picking Mulvaney as its temporary head even though Mulvaney has questioned the purpose of the agency. Cordray, who wrote a letter declaring English the head of CFPB, had to know that Trump would interpret the move as challenging the president’s power.

  3. Realistically, many of the more than 200 Senate-confirmed staffers in the Trump administration would not have been ideal to run the CFPB, since they don’t have much expertise in economics or financial issues. We are really talking about a more narrow universe of maybe about two dozen staffers who are assistant secretaries or above at departments like Commerce, Labor and Treasury.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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