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Mindless Cuts Can Have Dangerous Results

Last week, at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s conference, my former colleague (and former Roll Call impresario) Jim Glassman complained that the focus of the conference, just like Congress, was on how to cut the budget and get past the debt ceiling and debt crisis, while ignoring a larger issue — how to grow the economy to create a better life for our children and grandchildren.

He noted that there are many ideas out there to enhance economic growth, shared by both parties or offering opposing views. Those ideas might include (some of them on my list) a better tax code, lower marginal rates, even, a la Tim Pawlenty, slashing taxes by even more mind-boggling amounts; it might mean more spending on infrastructure, science and education.

Glassman pleaded for a change of subject, or at least a broader debate. I agree and would call for an even broader debate than he did: one that focuses not just on economic growth but the range of ways we can try to create a better society for our next generations, such as managing our budget cuts to make sure we minimize unintended and counterproductive consequences.

But in our dysfunction, we are debating only alternative visions of how to cut spending, which is as much about reflexively cutting the role of government as it is about deficits and debt (witness Pawlenty’s laughable plan that would add $11 trillion to the debt over the next decade).

And in that “debate” we are scarcely touching on serious questions of what parts of government to cut or eliminate and the consequences for society.

This vacuum emerged again last week when House Republicans jammed through, on a partisan vote, an appropriations bill that slashed funding for food safety and barred the Food and Drug Administration from implementing the major food safety law enacted in the 111th Congress.

I wrote about this set of issues earlier this year, when the House plan to cut discretionary spending in the continuing resolution included an effective 22 percent cut for the remainder of the fiscal year for the meat-inspection service of the Department of Agriculture and an equivalent cut for food inspection from the FDA, along with a deep cut in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As I pointed out, using data from Scott Lilly, former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, the cuts in meat inspection would mean serious furloughs among meat inspectors and their support staff, who account for more than 90 percent of the agency budget.

That in turn could be extrapolated to mean about a million pounds of tainted meat and poultry being put on the shelves in supermarkets and butcher shops and on the menu in restaurants.

Given the statistics we have on the number of foodborne illnesses that hit Americans each year — 48 million — that result in 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 killed, those cuts would surely mean more hospitalizations and more deaths.

Cuts in the FDA mean fewer inspections of plants in China that provide food additives, many of which have included toxic substances.

Cuts in the CDC mean a lesser capacity to deal with an epidemic if and when one arises.

These cuts are the equivalent of a family deciding to cut its own budget by selling its smoke detectors and replacing its furnace and lights with open kerosene lamps — and eliminating its home insurance at the same time. You can save money, all right, until the inevitable disaster.

I was in Europe when the devastating cases of E. coli in Germany — caused, it now appears, by tainted sprouts from Germany — roiled the country and caused serious economic disruption for vegetable farmers, distributors and sellers in Spain, Germany, Portugal and elsewhere, besides a number of deaths.

These kinds of cuts are seriously stupid and counterproductive, but the “debate” on the House floor brushed any concerns aside with the mantra of cutting deficits and the argument that our food supply is safe because the private sector wants it to be safe.

Of course, no food supplier wants to get sued. But if the private sector could self-manage this problem, we would not have seen the meat inspectors pull 9 million pounds of tainted meat and poultry from the system last year.

Whether it is offshore drilling, building construction, airline travel or sausage production, stuff happens and corners are cut to reduce costs or make bigger profits. Independent inspections are mandatory. Regulators can be captured by interests, as happened for decades at the Interior Department when it comes to oil drilling, or can be slothful or inefficient. But they are necessary for both public safety and public confidence.

There are places to cut budgets, and there is a necessary role for Congress in overseeing regulators and inspectors, making sure they operate in a lean, mean and effective fashion.

But mindless cuts that are utterly penny-wise and pound-foolish, like these, show how distorted our deliberative process has become. In the headlong rush to provide a better fiscal future for our children, we should not be providing a less safe present for all of us.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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