Trump budget chief hampers Biden transition with ban on meetings

US President-elect Joe Biden has complained that Trump administration officials have been hampering his transition. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - President Donald Trump's budget office is blocking Mr Joe Biden's transition team from meeting with key staff to help prepare the President-elect's first annual spending plan, a move that could delay major proposals.

The director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Mr Russ Vought, has argued internally that the agency needs to focus on finishing new regulations the Trump administration plans to publish before the President leaves office, according to people familiar with the matter.

But experts on the federal budget say Mr Vought's refusal to give Mr Biden's team access to career OMB officials is unprecedented and could hurt Mr Biden's efforts to roll out big-picture, forward-looking ideas on everything from health care to climate change to taxes at the start of his four-year term.

The career OMB staff could provide Mr Biden's team information such as cost estimates and details on existing programmes.

Mr Vought said in a series of tweets and in a letter sent to former Senator Ted Kaufman, Mr Biden's transition leader, that claims his agency hasn't been cooperative are false.

"We have provided all information requested from OMB about ongoing programmes," he wrote in the letter, dated Thursday (Dec 31).

"OMB has fully participated in appropriate transition efforts," he wrote, including taking 45 meeting with Biden officials "to discuss specific issues, operational questions and more."

"What we have not done and will not do is use current OMB staff to write the BTT's legislative policy proposals to dismantle this administration's work," he added, using an acronym for the Biden transition team.

"OMB staff are working on this administration's policies and will do so until this administration's final day in office. Redirecting staff and resources to draft your team's budget proposals is not an OMB transition responsibility."

Mr Biden complained Monday that Trump administration officials at OMB and the Pentagon were hampering his transition, but he didn't detail what they had done. The people familiar with Mr Vought's actions asked not to be identified because the discussions were private.

"Right now we just aren't getting all the information that we need from the outgoing administration in key national security areas," Mr Biden said after a meeting with his national security advisers and transition officials. "It's nothing short, in my view, of irresponsibility."

No administration from either party has ever prevented its successor from meeting with OMB staff, said Mr William Hoagland, a former top Republican Senate aide who worked on budget policy and appropriations for more than 25 years.

"Not having access to OMB and preparing their budget will further delay any actions they want to pursue. There will be a serious delay in the incoming Biden administration's ability to put forward their budget," Mr Hoagland said in an interview.

The Biden camp has said that OMB's alleged stonewalling has particularly set back the President-elect's effort to plan his response to the pandemic.

"OMB's refusal to cooperate impairs our ability to identify opportunities to maximise the relief going out to Americans during the pandemic, and it leaves us in the dark as it relates to Covid expenditures and other gaps," said Mr Yohannes Abraham, executive director of the Biden transition team.

But Mr Vought wrote in his letter that "your team has been briefed by OMB, as well as the relevant agencies, on Operation Warp Speed and other Covid-relief efforts, including the various funding streams in use for these efforts."

Incoming presidential administrations typically begin their budget planning well before the new president is inaugurated on Jan 20, in order to be able to send the document to Congress relatively soon thereafter. Congress decides how the government spends money, not the president, but the president's budget is an annual statement of his priorities and is a vital source of information on the government's activities.

The annual document is due to Congress on the first Monday in February, but in recent years has often been delayed.

Mr Trump submitted his first budget to Congress about four months after he took office, on May 23, 2017. President Barack Obama submitted an initial budget proposal about one month after he took office, on Feb 26, 2009, and provided additional detail in May.

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