Wait until you see the CFPB's budget request for this quarter

Having observed the workings of federal bureaucracies over a number of years, most of you are aware of how the budget process works for the various departments of the federal government. Everyone scrapes and claws for every penny they can get their hands on and studiously ensures that they spend the entire pot so they can ask for more money next time. This is one of the central premises of The Weed Agency (which you should absolutely read if you didn’t catch it when it first came out). But what happens when somebody breaks that mold?

We’re about to find out. Mick Mulvaney is now in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (at least temporarily) and he had to put in his quarterly budget request this month. But unlike everyone else inside the Beltway, he didn’t ask for more money than last quarter. He didn’t ask for the same amount of money. He didn’t even request a modest reduction in the bureau’s budget. He asked for… zero. (LA Times)

In his first quarterly funding request as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney is asking for nothing.

“This letter is to inform you that for the Second Quarter of Fiscal Year 2018, the Bureau is requesting $0,” he wrote Wednesday to Janet L. Yellen, chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, which provides the watchdog agency’s funding.

Mulvaney said that the bureau had enough money on hand to cover its anticipated $145 million in expenses for the quarter, which began Jan. 1, and that he plans to slash the bureau’s reserve fund.

Critics will no doubt describe this as another move to poison the well and effectively starve the CFPB to death if it can’t be killed through legislative action. And for all anyone knows, that’s very possibly the case. After all, Mulvaney has previously described the bureau he took over as a joke that he’d like to get rid of.

But it’s also an interesting exercise in examining the Washington sausage factory and seeing precisely how they grind out their product. How much “reserve” cash is the CFPB sitting on and was it already allocated for anything further down the line? There are always unexpected expenses for any agency and they need to plan ahead, but for the most part, federal entities theoretically request the amount of money they’re going to need over any given period and spend it. Will Mulvaney have to turn around in three months and make a massively larger than normal request to make up for this?

If the answer to that last question is yes then critics may be justified in referring to this as a political stunt. But if not, perhaps this is something that all the rest of the executive agencies should be looking at. Budget hawks have long suspected that the government might be able to operate with significantly smaller budgets if they were ever forced to figure out a way to do so. If the CFPB can do it, Mulvaney may be the boy who pointed out that the budget emperor has no clothes.

I suppose it’s still possible that this is simply a first volley in a plan to eventually bury the bureau, but if so, I doubt it would work. Getting rid of the CFPB entirely (or at least massively restructuring it to provide for more oversight) is clearly a subject worthy of debate, but I’m fairly sure it would require congressional action to do so.