President Obama’s expected State of the Union announcement that he plans to seek a freeze on non-security discretionary spending is an early warning sign that he and his team have decided to play small ball, abandoning the promise of his newly minted transformative presidency. The President’s decision to borrow this shopworn pander from the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations almost certainly means continued, fatal dysfunction for the five agencies that ensure the quality of the air we breathe and the food we eat, the safety of the drugs we take and the consumer products we buy, and the control of toxic chemical exposures in the workplace.
Let’s be clear: those five protector agencies are severely handicapped in their efforts to protect Americans from a variety of hazards because their budgets have been shrinking or staying flat while the challenges they face have grown. In the scale of the things, it wouldn’t take a lot of money to give them the resources they need to protect us from future iterations of the recent spate of regulatory failures – poisonous peanut butter, toxic drywall, lead-laden toys, etc. Mostly, it just takes political will.
Instead, we get a freeze that will do little to trim the budget, and nothing to help the economy – it might even harm it! And to what end? Within the first brief news cycle that contained his announcement, Michael Steel, spokesman for the House Minority Leader John Boehner, compared the freeze to a pie-eating contestant’s promise to go on a diet, perhaps not the warm bipartisan embrace the President’s team had in mind. In the ultimate irony, the total expenditure for all these agencies and the Food and Drug Administration is about $10.3 billion, 50 percent less than the supposedly piddling amount the freeze will save annually through the end of the president’s first term. You could increase their funding by 50 or even 100 percent without having much impact on the deficit.
The decision also isolates the weakest, least-likely-to-vote Americans, in exchange for barely a nanosecond of relief from his political opponents. The President’s team sought to mitigate the reaction of the so-called Democratic “base” by maintaining radio silence on exactly how these shrinking resources would be carved up. The freeze would apply to only 17 percent of the budget, a total of about $450 million, and does not include the massive entitlement spending for Medicare and Social Security, the defense budget and foreign aid, but does appear to include early childhood education, afterschool programs, worker safety, and consumer and environmental protections. The President has not said how he will allocate the aggregate amount of frozen funds, which will not even be indexed for inflation, in effect setting off a destructive battle within the public interest community to see if Head Start can trump toxics regulation. For programs already struggling to hold their own, further cuts could prove devastating. But when all the dust has settled, these cuts will provide barely 3 percent of deficit reduction over the remainder of the president’s term, or an estimated $15 billion in savings from an estimated $1.3 trillion in red ink for this fiscal year and more for the next two out years.
How dire are the likely effects of these decreases? Consider that in constant dollars, the budgets for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have not increased since the early 1980s. During that same period, the U.S. population grew 34 percent. The number of workplaces in OSHA’s jurisdiction doubled, from 4 million to 8.7 million, but the number of inspectors available to check on safety conditions dwindled by 200. And the number of registered motor vehicles grew from 155 million to 294 million.
Budget deficits are worrisome, but they cannot stand in isolation. We can count the money we spend, but we have no grasp on the money—not to mention—human suffering and lost resources—it costs us to tolerate all of the health, safety, and environmental threats these agencies were designed to prevent.
When he ran for election, President Obama pledged to deliver a government that would help people when they cannot help themselves. A year later, that vision is failing and too many of those people are being let out into the cold.