The Cascading Effects of Government Cuts


The Republican dog that caught the government bus is busy chewing holes in the tires. They’ll blow up on him.

Let’s look at a small sample of the possibilities. Some in the Trump administration, as well as in Congress, want to obliterate the Environmental Protection Agency. More serious – because it would take less work by Congress – is a movement to cut its budget and its staff by two thirds.  The first effect for a president elected on the promise of creating jobs is the elimination of 10,000 well-paying jobs. These people pay taxes, buy houses, and send their kids to dancing lessons. The ripple effect through the economy is not insubstantial.

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The U.S. Geological Survey, where I used to work, operates at least one water science center in every state of the union. The people who work in them operate the familiar USGS stream gauges, monitoring water levels, and, among other things, perform a lot of sophisticated studies of water quality. Most of that work is done under contracts, usually with state agencies. In Pennsylvania, where I live, about a third of the water science center’s money is “reimbursable,” or contract, work for the state Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP. The source of the DEP money? In many instances, it’s not state tax funds, but EPA pass-throughs.

EPA employees pay taxes, buy homes, have kids

So the EPA cuts cascade down through state government and, in some cases, back to other federal agencies. More job cuts, more highly qualified scientists out of work and on the street.

But all of that is just the beginning. Thing is, all these people work. Corporations don’t like it very much, because the EPA, with information gathered through its own scientists and those in the other agencies and contractors, is capable of curtailing corporate activities, or of making them more expensive.

The way the government works may look crazy. It may even be crazy. But here’s the fact: You cannot pull a piece at random out of the pile of pick-up sticks that is government and expect it to be a single, discreet action.

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Here is the testimony of former Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Quigley concerning the department’s 2017 budget. In the interest of full disclosure, Quigley is a friend, and his dismissal from that job – for performing the job – was considered scandalous. But the testimony stands on its own. What he says is true: “DEP’s ability to protect public health and the environment, and to perform basic functions like evaluating permit applications in a timely fashion, have been stressed to the limit. Further cuts will jeopardize the citizens we serve and the environment that we are obligated to protect, and harm the state’s economy.”

So: cuts to the EPA will not – repeat, NOT – be offset by additional efforts at the state level. Quite the contrary; cuts to the EPA budget will devastate already strained state budgets. What does this mean?

It’s hard to put this too strongly. What it means is that Flint’s problems with lead in the water will quickly become, not an aberration, but a national norm. That is to say, we’ll be poisoned before we hear about the issue. If you think that is hyperbole, then answer this question: Who’s going to watch the henhouse? The federal government? No. State government? No. Private industry? Ignorance is in their interest. You’re not liable for damage you didn’t know – wink, nod – you were causing.

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All of this goes for enforcement of the Clean Water Act, and also of the Clean Air Act. Many other environmental laws are not just being neglected, but openly targeted for repeal or reduction to meaninglessness.  Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, says the Endangered Species Act “is not working today,” so he wants to “modernize it.” What he means is that it is working, so he wants to make it toothless.

The Endangered Species Act is responsible for the continued existence, today, of our national symbol the bald eagle, as well as countless other, less glamorous species. Still, the decline in biodiversity is proceeding at such a pace that our own survival as a species is in serious peril.

You can multiply these examples by dozens, because dozens of federal agencies are targeted for reductions. Some of the losses you’ll miss right away, while others may take months or years to reach their full impact. While the politicians prattle on about “keeping us safe,” they’ll slash funds for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health. They’ll gut the Food and Drug Administration and raze every barrier between rapacious Wall Street bankers and your wallet.

Relatively few people understand the crazy way our government works. Here, courtesy of the Brookings Institution, is a quick explanation of how government budgets tend to rise even while government employment shrinks. The piece does not explain, even though it is true, that government services are quite often less costly and almost always more effective when delivered by government personnel.

If – and that is perhaps the biggest two-letter word in the language – some sanity can be restored to government in two years and four, there will be a very great deal of rebuilding to do before we can reach even the sorry point where we find ourselves now.