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Trump’s budget chief answers student questions at SIEPR

Mick Mulvaney in student talk

Mick Mulvaney fields questions from students at SIEPR on May 11, 2017. 

Photo by Steve Castillo

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill were locked in a battle over a Republican health care plan, Stanford students seized an opportunity on Thursday to get direct answers from the White House budget chief on a slew of hot-button issues facing the administration.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s appearance at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research was jointly organized with Stanford in Government and the Stanford Economics Association. More than 50 students attended the intimate, town hall-like session.

The students — many of them wearing T-shirts, jeans or shorts — did not mince words. And Mulvaney — dressed in a dark suit and socks featuring Captain America — held his ground. President Donald Trump’s budget chief repeated his stance on economic growth, entitlement programs, tax reform and health care.

One student asked what Trump meant by his tweet calling for a “good shutdown” of government.

“We may need a disruptive event to drive home the fact that we can’t continue like this,” Mulvaney said, referring to the possibility of a budget impasse and a government shutdown in September, when the current appropriations bill funding the federal government expires.

Mulvaney decried the practice of “backroom” negotiations and a failed appropriations process.

“To a businessperson like Donald Trump, that’s extraordinarily frustrating and extraordinarily inefficient,” he said.

So when Trump had asked him, “‘How did we get like this?’” and “What are we going to do about it?” the budget chief said, “Maybe at some point you have to send a message that we can’t do this anymore and you may have to shut the government down.”

“And that’s what led to the tweet,” Mulvaney said.

John Shoven, a SIEPR senior fellow and the Charles R. Schwab Professor of Economics, moderated the session. Shoven raised the thorny issue of entitlement programs. Funds for Social Security have long been predicted to run out sometime between 2029 and 2034.

Mulvaney pointed to how “relatively small changes,” including a proposal to push the eligibility period out by “an additional few years” could make a difference. But, he acknowledged, “That’s a hard sell.”

The budget chief reiterated what many top administration officials have been touting — that any new initiatives and deregulation could be funded by an expansion in the economy from today’s 1 percent growth rate to 3 percent. It would create an entirely different view — of job options and economic optimism — that no millennial has ever experienced, he explained.

A student later pressed the budget chief for more on the entitlement topic: “It’s so important to the welfare of our generation. How do you justify not tackling it?” the student asked.

Mulvaney suggested that another way to expand the Social Security Trust Fund is to get more people to return to work, or to get off disability or welfare.

When students questioned the estimated costs and funding for the Republican health care plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, the budget chief defended the initiative, pointing to how the Affordable Care Act has failed in some states like Iowa to cover patients with pre-existing conditions. The new plan would give states greater control over health insurance exchanges and consumers would benefit from price competition, he contended.

“Comparing the Republican bill to this ideal of Obamacare is somewhat intellectually disingenuous,” Mulvaney said.

Mulvaney had similarly defended the merits of the Republican plan when he spoke earlier in the day at The Light Forum, a health care industry conference hosted at Stanford that included co-panelist Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and SIEPR senior fellow.

At SIEPR, Shoven solicited Mulvaney’s guidance for any aspiring politicians. “Politics is so nasty now that many people might not be excited about going into it,” Shoven said.

Mulvaney, who was elected as a South Carolina Congressman in 2010 — the first Republican to win the district’s seat in 128 years — said he hoped government could return to a time when politics constituted a viable living. And he warned against a future government filled with celebrities, or those with deep pockets.

Students should “go out and live a real life first” before immersing themselves in a political career, he said.

“The best lawmakers — men and women — are folks who know what the real world is like.”