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‘Nonsecurity’ Spending Cuts Could Be Hazardous to Your Health

Reckless Budgeting Puts Americans at Risk

SOURCE: AP/Jayme Halbritter

A wide variety of cuts of meat are displayed at Cub Foods grocery store in Burnsville, Minnesota. The House GOP budget would cut the Food Safety Inspection Service, which inspects meat, by $88 million, which is nearly 9 percent of its total annual budget. Since the fiscal year is half over, the reduction in the agency’s operating level for the remainder of this year will be about 18 percent.

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One great irony in the current debate over cutting federal spending is the label House Republicans have placed on the tiny sliver of federal spending they’ve targeted for cuts in their budget proposal for the remainder of fiscal year 2011: “nonsecurity discretionary programs.” Despite that label many of the cuts they are proposing in this group of programs will reduce our security in a variety of ways.

They will increase our chances of getting sick from unsafe meat and poultry products, contaminated drinking water, and impure food additives. Our streets will be less safe. Efforts to insure safety on our ports, highways, railroads, and commercial airlines will be reduced. The prospect of developing more effective treatments for cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and other dread diseases will be diminished.

Most of the proposed cuts target poor people but many significantly jeopardize the safety and security of Americans at all income levels.

Let’s talk about meat first. Americans have relied on the Department of Agriculture to monitor the slaughtering, processing, storage, transport, and sale of meat in this country since 1906. Last fall, Food Safety Inspection Service employees found Salmonella bacteria through random microbiological testing of “ready to eat” tubs of pork barbeque shipped by a food processor in North Carolina. As a result, 4,920 pounds of potentially tainted barbecue were recalled and never reached grocery shelves. It was one of 71 recalls that blocked nearly 9.5 million pounds of problem meat from reaching consumers.

The Food Safety Inspection Service, or FSIS, is responsible for inspecting conditions in more than 6,000 slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants in the United States and for the inspection of 3.4 billion pounds of imported meat each year. The agency has a budget of slightly more than $1 billion a year that largely goes to pay the salaries of the 9,500 inspectors and support staff.

Rep. John Boehner’s (R-OH) budget would cut FSIS by $88 million, which is nearly 9 percent of its total annual budget. Since the fiscal year is half over, the reduction in the agency’s operating level for the remainder of this year will be about 18 percent.

The only practical means of handling the proposed cut would be furloughs of current staff since there is little to cut other than people and since a reduction in force would involve very expensive termination costs—forcing still further layoffs. The best estimate at the moment is that FSIS inspectors will not be paid for at least 22 of the 125 work days in the last half of this fiscal year.

It is not unreasonable to assume that as a result of these cuts, at least a million or more pounds of defective meat that would have been blocked from reaching supermarkets will do so. Some may well make it to a grocery store near you.

There is no evidence that the new leaders in the House are picking on the FSIS, as bad as this story may seem. The job of protecting us from contaminated foods other than meat and poultry—including the rapidly growing and too often problematic food additives being shipped from China—belongs to the Food and Drug Administration. They were actually hammered harder than FSIS with a $241 million cut from the $2.36 billion the agency is now operating on. For FDA food safety operations, this would mean average furloughs of more than five weeks between now and October 1 for each of the 8,600 inspectors and other employees.

This action comes only months after the Centers for Disease Control reported that 48 million Americans, or one person out of every six, get sick each year from food-borne illnesses. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

But as I mentioned earlier, the House continuing resolution, or CR, affects the security of Americans in a wide variety of ways. The cuts leveled at federal support for local law enforcement are remarkable. In total, $1.3 billion in funding was eliminated, reducing the number of police and other criminal justice personnel across the country by 5,200.

We will also be less safe when we travel. Despite the fact that the number of U.S. airline passengers is projected to grow by almost 3 percent a year over the next two decades—doubling from current levels by 2031—the CR slices $200 million from the Next Generation Air Transportation System—the technology necessary to support the huge projected increase in the number of airliners expected to be crossing the country at any given point in time.

The House bill also cuts funding for railroad, port, and subway security. These cuts have drawn attacks even from within the House Republican Conference. The man the conference picked to chair the Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), commented, “From a security perspective and a dollars and cents perspective, it’s very shortsighted, it’s dangerous, and it’s wrong.” King also stated, “We’re not talking about earmarks; we’re not talking about sweetheart contracts … we’re talking about life and death.”

One of the most frightening scenarios since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been the possibility that unguarded nuclear materials might fall into the hands of criminals, terrorists, or rogue nations. Despite significant progress in this area over the past two decades, there is much that still needs to be done, and the president requested a total of $2.7 billion for these activities in the coming year. The House bill, however, cuts $648 million from that level, increasing the likelihood that such material may fall into the hands of individuals hostile to the United States.

One of the biggest public health problems facing the United States in the coming years is our aging drinking-water infrastructure. While the Environmental Protection Agency has established maximum contamination levels for community water systems, an analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, states that there is currently an $11 billion-a-year shortfall in the funding necessary to “replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful life and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations.”

ASCE, in rating 15 separate areas on national infrastructure, gives drinking water the lowest rating—a D- on a scale of A to F. They and others—including leading public health experts—have warned that the current level of federal support for helping local communities cope with these pressing infrastructure needs is far from adequate. But the House bill will cut that support by $550 million, or 40 percent below 2010 levels. The legislation also cuts funding to deal with leaking underground storage tanks.

There are numerous other examples of how this package would impact the safety and security of nearly all of us:

  • There would be less money to identify and improve hazardous bridges, intersections, and roadways.
  • More than 300 new biomedical research grants would go unfunded.
  • Support for state public health programs aimed at the early identification and response to epidemic diseases would be slashed.
  • Emergency rooms across the country will be burdened by the inflow of patients from the community hospitals that will be closed.

All of these are serious concerns that should alarm thoughtful people. But beyond that, this list of possible consequences should inspire people to look more carefully at this legislation. As David Brooks said recently in The New York Times, “The Republicans who designed the cuts for this fiscal year seemed to have done no serious policy evaluation.”

The fact is they couldn’t. The House leadership ordered the newly assembled staff on the House Appropriations Committee on February 3 to cut $44 billion from the “nonsecurity discretionary” portion of the budget—a category that according to Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) contained $464 billion in annual spending. A week later, Rep. Ryan, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), and Speaker Boehner himself were overruled by the most conservative members of their party and ordered to find another $26 billion in cuts from this small (13 percent) portion of the budget—cuts that were to be extracted in a six-month period, making them in reality twice their nominal size.

The following evening a package emerged of more than 500 program cuts totaling more than $70 billion—effectively reducing “nonsecurity discretionary programs” funding in the second half of this year to a level 30 percent lower than it was in the first half.

This dramatic alteration in the level and quality of government service and activity was done without a single hearing, without any opportunity for experts in the various fields of activity affected to offer formal comment, and in fact without even a single meeting of the committee of jurisdiction. These decisions are random, slapdash, and nonsensical.

Some have suggested that once these proposed cuts are reviewed by the Senate and a compromise between the two bodies is reached, the damage will be largely adjusted. That is simply not the case. A $44 million cut in the FSIS is certainly better than an $88 million cut, but that $44 million cut makes no sense, either. Meat inspectors would be furloughed for 10 to 12 days between now and October rather than 20 to 24 days as would be true with the House bill. That could reduce the amount of infected meat sent to supermarkets from the million-pound figure I predicted to perhaps half that amount. Why should that happen?

It is the responsibility of elected representatives to reach a compromise and allow the process of government to move forward. The compromise that will be reached on this legislation will be remarkably bad for this country and its citizens unless ordinary people tune in, get informed, and get involved. To quote Tea Party activists from a year and a half ago, “Read the bill.”

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

More from CAP on the GOP’s budget:

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