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White House budget office gives political appointees more power in spending, alarming career officials

President Trump alongside acting Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought in October. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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The White House budget office has upended a decades-old practice on how federal agencies spend money, giving more power to political appointees to move money around, two senior administration officials confirmed.

Previously, career staffers at the White House Office of Management and Budget, the kind of employees who work at agencies despite changes in administrations, were charged with signing off on approving the “apportionment” of funds, deciding how to shift or restrict the disbursement of money already approved by Congress.

Under a new system unilaterally put in place last week, those decisions will now be signed off on by political appointees chosen by the Trump administration who work as program associate directors at the OMB. The change was confirmed by two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly about the new internal policy. A White House spokesman dismissed the significance of the change on Thursday, noting career staff have always served under the direction of political appointees.

Career OMB staffers have privately expressed concern that the shift will dramatically slow down the disbursement of federal funding approved by Congress, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with these staffers. Some career staffers have also expressed “deep suspicion” about the administration’s motives for the change, one of these people said. Career staffers say they are unclear why this change is happening now.

The Senate last month confirmed as the new OMB director Russ Vought, a fiscal hawk who helped lead the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Vought already has the power to legally sign off on any OMB spending decision, and career officials already report to political appointees.

White House officials said the change would not increase the power of political appointees over career staffers, because staffers have always served under political appointees. “Appointees directly supervise career staff and therefore have always had final say in the apportionment process — to suggest otherwise is false,” Chase Jennings, an OMB spokesman, said in a statement Thursday evening.

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White House officials under President Trump have already dramatically stretched prior limits on how funding can be unilaterally repurposed without the consent of Congress, fueling some of the most contentious battles in the Trump administration.

The OMB decision to halt military aid to Ukraine last year was central to the House’s impeachment of the president. Congressional Democrats blasted the White House for withholding aid approved by Congress to Puerto Rico. More recently, after a deal with Congress fell through over unemployment benefits, the White House unilaterally reallocated tens of billions of dollars in hurricane relief money to a new program to help unemployed Americans.

Congressional Democrats and former OMB officials denounced the decision, saying it will give political appointees discretion over key legal decisions that should be made by expert career staffers.

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“Apportioning funds is a responsibility delegated to career staff because they are steeped in those laws and are in the best position to know whether the laws are being observed,” said Jack Smalligan, a former top official at the White House budget office who has worked under Republican and Democratic administrations.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said in a statement, “This is a deliberate and disturbing step by the Trump Administration to consolidate power among political cronies, undermine Congress, and silence anyone who might stand in their way.”

The change in policy was reported first by Politico and the Intercept. Spokespeople for the White House budget office refused to answer questions on the record or provide a copy of the new policy.

The two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the policy characterized the shift as a routine change long under discussion. These officials also downplayed the significance of the change by pointing out that the career officials were already serving under the political appointees and that career officials would remain heavily involved in the apportionment process.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog, previously found that the White House’s hold on the Ukraine aid violated federal law.