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
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