Multiple cases of E. coli have been reported this week over tainted hazelnuts, reminding us that foodborne illnesses are a big problem. The Centers for Disease Control calculate that last year, 48 million Americans got sick from them, with 128,000 of those people hospitalized and 3,000 of which died.
The Center for American Progress’ Scott Lilly, a former House Appropriations Committee staff director, used those figures to point out powerfully how the struggle over the continuing resolution and over spending this year has glossed over the specific cuts being proposed, which seem to have been slapped together without any consideration of costs and benefits.
As Lilly points out, the House Republican plan cuts 18 percent from the budget for the rest of the year of the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, almost all of which would come from staff furloughs of the 9,500 inspectors and support staff. These inspectors last year blocked 9.5 million pounds of tainted meat from being consumed by Americans, including salmonella-tainted pork. The furloughs required to meet the budget plan would probably mean a million pounds or more of tainted meat arriving on supermarket shelves instead of being shelved by the FSIS.
Then come the cuts to the Food and Drug Administration, which has responsibility for examining potentially tainted foods and additives, including imports, other than meat and poultry. The FDA has 8,600 inspectors and support staff for these purposes; its budget was hammered enough to require well over 20 percent cuts, or even more and longer furloughs. Lilly does not get into the implications of cuts for the CDC, which would be responsible for dealing with epidemics like salmonella or E. coli, much less other problems with FDA cuts, such as longer approval times for critical drugs.
Food safety and drug approval are among many areas where cuts, if they occurred, would have counterproductive impact. Others include port security, border security, diplomacy, drinking water, health research and airline safety. Then there are the programs slated for elimination, including public broadcasting, AmeriCorps, Teach for America (praised to the sky by George F. Will and Joel Klein) and the Institute of Peace.
Here is what the Senate ought to do between now and March 18, when the CR extension runs out: Do a real debate, program by program, on the cuts proposed by the House Republicans. Move the dialogue from one focused on reducing debt and deficits — a phony debate when it relies almost entirely on immediate cuts in one-half of one-eighth of the budget — and direct it to the real impact on programs and the perverse impact on spending.
Spend a few hours looking at food and additive inspection in plants in the U.S., China and elsewhere. Look at the nature of the problem, the costs to the society, including health costs, of dealing with food-borne epidemics, the efficiency, or lack thereof, in our food safety programs and what the implications would be of 18 percent to 20 percent cuts implemented immediately.
Then spend a few hours on homeland security, and why cutting funding for inspections of ports, chemical and nuclear plants, subways and railroads would be a good place to turn for budget discipline.
Move on to a discussion of our crumbling drinking water infrastructure and the rationale behind cuts of 40 percent in this area. Then perhaps follow with the rationale behind cuts in safeguarding “loose nukes.” And segue to cuts in biomedical research grants.
Then have a robust discussion about smart power, including the Institute of Peace, which was derided by Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) as a “think tank.” Perhaps a debate that included some background — its creation under President Ronald Reagan, its role in building civil society in Afghanistan and Iraq, its training efforts to make sure that when popular revolts take place in volatile countries like Egypt and Libya there are people who can build free societies and negotiate differences across tribes and regions.
A debate about Pell Grants and the implications of cuts for middle-income families with kids in college, AmeriCorps and Teach for America, federal aid to the states for Medicaid (and what will happen if additional Medicaid cuts in a weak economy mean more people turning up at emergency rooms), elimination of aid to Planned Parenthood and its implications for cervical cancer and women’s health, might follow.
Let’s move on to a debate about the presidential public funding system, slated for demise. That debate might include articles co-authored by conservatives like former Federal Election Commissioner Michael Toner about why the presidential public funding system needs reform to make it robust again, to keep the Watergate-style corruption that generated it in the 1970s from flooding back into a system that is already moving in that awful direction.
What a perfect way to show the American people the Senate can be a great debating society, a truly deliberative body. The debate should not just be a defense of existing programs but a searching look at where reasonable cuts can be made. Maybe then we can move to serious deliberation about the tough choices we have ahead and on the revenues necessary to provide for the government the American people want. That might actually be the kind of adult conversation Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has called for, which the current dynamic of brinksmanship has in no way resembled.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.