Published on Friday, May 11, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
$1.6 Billion Tax Cut Will Further Hurt Government's Ability to Protect Consumers
by Charlene Spretnak
TO WIN SUPPORT for his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years,
President Bush has continually asserted that the American taxpayer has been
overcharged, resulting in a "surplus" in the federal budget. This surplus, he
argues, should now be returned -- with nearly half of the trillion-plus
dollars going to the richest 1 percent.
This week the House and Senate approved the President's budget for 2002, which constitutes a victorious first step toward his 10-year tax cut (reduced by Congress to only $1.3 trillion) and begins it with a $100 billion tax cut for this year (retroactive to January 1) and next year.
But is there really a gargantuan surplus in the federal budget?
Twenty years ago, the Reagan administration, with the support of many Democrats, was able to pass a similarly huge tax cut -- benefiting the very rich and drastically reducing federal programs of all sorts (except for the defense contractors) in order to "get government off our backs."
One result of Reaganomics was a tripling of the national debt so budgets for needed public programs and agencies had to remain at drastically reduced levels throughout the 1990s while the federal debt was largely but not completely paid down. During the recent budget debates in Congress, neither the Democrats, nor the moderate Republicans, nor the president, nor the media has focused attention on a wide area of governmental funding that has been kept at levels far below efficiency since the Reagan era: Guarding the health and safety of the American public via regulatory agencies that check for problems in food and food additives, drugs, manufactured products, and in the workplace and the environment. It is unlikely that the "Middle Americans" rounded up for photo-ops at President Bush's recent rallies for "Tax Relief Now!" are aware of the following critical situations, each of which could well directly affect their families:
The federal Food and Drug Administration is so underfunded and understaffed that its investigators are currently able to sample less than 1 percent of all foods offered for import into the United States. The FDA's Web site states openly that "there are now serious gaps between what the agency needs to do and what it can do."
Funding for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been cut so severely that only 100 people are currently working on developing workplace standards for the thousands of toxic substances and for other safety hazards in factories and chemical plants at hundreds of thousands of sites.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is supposed to regulate the entire motor transportation industry with a budget that is 30 percent lower than in 1980 and with only 15 investigators. The budget cuts for the federal Environmental Protection Agency have reduced the travel allowance for inspectors while their territories have been increased. In any event, the enforcement capability of the EPA was gutted by the Clinton administration, which ordered it to shift from issuing citations for pollution violations to merely offering "compliance assistance," a program in which fines and prosecution have been replaced by advice.
Most of the 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths caused annually by food- borne pathogens fall within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As in other agencies, the USDA's regulatory authority has been drastically curtailed in recent years.
Since 1996, inspection of meat and poultry plants has been guided by the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, in which the companies create their own plan for identifying any safety problems "at key points" and their own methods to address them. Federal inspectors are then allowed to examine only the problem areas identified by the company.
They are almost never permitted to close a plant anymore, even after it has accumulated several warnings about filthy conditions, which have subsequently caused outbreaks of e. coli infections among consumers.
Why have both major parties voted in Congress over the past 20 years to burden regulatory agencies with layers of new procedures and rounds of consultations with "stakeholders" that nearly paralyze the process of setting standards?
Why have their operating budgets been continually squeezed?
Why was the over-burdened, underfunded federal regulatory system not an issue for either Gore or Bush during the campaign last year -- in spite of myriad testimonies before congressional committees about the present dangers?
Why did President Bush propose a budget that maintains or worsens the crisis in under-regulation?
The simple reason: Big business does not want to be regulated. It has expressed this position loudly and clearly via huge campaign contributions to both major parties. There is no enormous "surplus" in the federal budget and no need to drastically slash government revenue for the coming decade -- unless one agrees with President Bush that whatever big business wants is good for America -- and the public be damned.
Charlene Spretnak is author of The Resurgence of the Real (Routledge, 1999) and is a member of the California Green Party.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle