“I’ve never understood the allure of putting your name on a building that was built with taxpayers’ money,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney, 45, came to Washington in 2010 promising to pare spending even if it meant fewer projects and near-term pain for his South Carolina district. “We really believe you can’t spend money you don’t have,” Mulvaney said in his victory speech.
Now three years later, he was coming home just as the budget cuts he has so passionately advocated were starting to bite, particularly in the area around Shaw, where more than 1,000 civilian workers face furloughs and lucrative construction jobs are drying up.
He had done what he promised to do, but with his constituents starting to feel real losses, he couldn’t help but worry whether their anger would focus on him.
The congressman came to a stop in front of the 9th Air Force headquarters building, where a two-star general, clad in a green camouflage uniform, was waiting to greet him. To save money, the general had shut down the base movie theater, closed swimming pools and halted all repairs to the post’s buildings, including one that was recently smashed by a falling tree and is now fenced off and uninhabitable.
When that wasn’t enough, the Air Force ordered him to cut flight hours for Shaw’s F-16 fighter jets. One of the base’s squadrons has been grounded and the other, which is flying reduced hours, will need a month of full-time training before it is combat-ready.
“Are you comfortable with that time frame?” Mulvaney asked the general.
“No, I am not,” he replied. “Kim Jong Un is not going to give me 30 days to get ready.”
They were meeting in the general’s office, where the walls are covered with pictures of the planes that he has flown over the course of a 35-year Air Force career. The general said he had never seen his Air Force less ready for combat.
Against the force of the general’s voice, Mulvaney held steady. “If the cuts force us to look for better ways of saving money in the future, they will be a success,” he said. “We can’t go backwards.”
Outside the headquarters building, the general had a final message for the congressman. He pointed out a World War II-era fighter, mounted on a pole and missing a piece of its tail. The chunk had snapped off a few weeks earlier in a windstorm. “We can’t afford to fix it,” he said.
‘These cuts are real’
It was anger that propelled Mulvaney into office. Even after 28 years of largess, his predecessor couldn’t win over voters who were furious at him for supporting President Obama’s controversial health-care legislation. Mulvaney knows that much of his backing during the past two elections came from people voting against the president.
His sprawling district is split in two. Support for him is strongest in the more transient north, bordering Charlotte, where subdivisions offering homes in the low $300,000s are being rapidly carved out of the fertile, red soil. This is the area that Mulvaney represented for three years in the South Carolina legislature.
In the more rural and poorer south, Mulvaney is still a bit of an unknown, which became apparent when he arrived at a Rotary Club luncheon in Sumter. The smell of fried okra hung heavy in the air. Just before Mulvaney stood to speak, his Rotary Club host quietly asked him what committees he served on in Washington.
“Financial services and small business,” he whispered.
Mulvaney’s predecessor, who served as the powerful chairman of the House budget committee, would often boast that he had brought more than $120 million in federal projects to the Air Force base. Each year, he shaved off a piece of the federal budget to extend a runway, build a new commissary or refurbish the dorms at Shaw. He was a regular at ribbon cuttings.
Mulvaney mostly meets with voters through weekly town hall meetings. Sometimes he brings with him a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation, full of bar graphs and fever charts depicting the growing federal deficit and the surging cost of health care. In January, Mulvaney added a chart on the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, which next year will total about $100 billion.
To him the numbers make sense. “In the greater scheme of things, they are not that big,” Mulvaney said.
But, every once in a while, a personal anecdote punctures his certainty. Earlier this month, a friend and former campaign volunteer stood up at one of the town hall meetings to tell Mulvaney that the defense cuts had cost him his job of five years with a large defense contractor. “I just want you to know that these cuts are real and they hurt me,” said Jeffrey Betsch, a single father of three daughters, who was on the verge of being evicted from his home.
After the Rotary Club speech, Mulvaney was thinking about his friend as he drove down a narrow two-lane ribbon of worn blacktop, past strawberry farms and pine forests. He felt terrible, he said, but he also believed that the country faced problems that were bigger than the struggles of a single constituent.
“I don’t see how you wipe out 40 cents of spending on every dollar and not have someone get hurt,” Mulvaney said.
Anger, directed elsewhere
When Mulvaney looks ahead, he sees himself possibly running for the Senate in 2016 or maybe pursuing the governor’s office in 2018, when there will be an open Republican primary.
Whatever the future holds, he believes he’s a new kind of Republican — the kind who has been willing to team up with the likes of then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to freeze defense spending or bash House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) for seeking a compromise with Obama during the recent “fiscal cliff” debate.
“The good news is that there are younger members of Congress that are going to say what they really think,” he told an auditorium of high school juniors and seniors in suburban Rock Hill at another stop this day. “We’re improving the level of dialogue in Washington.”
All day long, Mulvaney repeated this message. Now he was headed to his last event of the day, a town hall meeting. He wolfed down a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s and pulled into the Camden City Hall parking lot. “Seven minutes to spare,” he said.
About 40 people — most of them regulars — were waiting for him. Mulvaney took a seat at the front of the small auditorium. His starched button-down shirt had come untucked from his khaki pants. He leaned forward, tired from a long day on the road, and rested his elbows on his legs.
“It’s great to be here in Sumter,” he said.
“Camden,” the crowd corrected him.
“How many places have I been today?” he asked. “It’s great to be in Camden.”
When he launched into his 30-minute slide show on the federal deficit, the bar graphs and fever charts seemed to energize him. “You can’t come to one of my meetings and not see this slide,” he said, showing a graph that compares the federal deficit to a family’s budget. If the federal government were a family with $48,000 in annual income, it would have $78,000 in annual expenses and a $325,000 credit card debt, according to the congressman’s chart. “This is exactly where our nation is right now,” he said. “We can’t do this anymore.”
He paused to gauge the level of anger in the room. Outside the city hall meeting room, there were hundreds of federal projects that his predecessor had fought to bring to the district during his 28-year career.
Inside the room, there were angry faces. They were angry about spending on Obama’s health-care law; about illegal immigration; about the possibility of higher taxes to chip away at the federal deficit. As Mulvaney looked into the crowd, he realized that they weren’t angry at him.