If you wanted to reduce the federal debt, would your top priorities be eliminating public television, pollution controls, and head-start programs? These are strange times in all capitols, but perhaps the strangest in Washington is the disconnect between the stated objective - restoring fiscal balance - and the means the House of Representatives has chosen, which have so little to do with fiscal matters at all. Instead, we have a war on one party's favorite boogeymen. Off with their heads!
With only 12 percent of federal spending on the table, half of that in national defense, and the other half spread over two dozen agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency emerges as the enemy. We see [attacks] on among other things: water standards for Florida, whose famed springs have turned slime green; mercury standards for cement kilns (where'd that come from?); waste controls for coal ash, which recently flooded an entire county in Tennessee; limits on mountaintop mining, which blows entire hillsides into valleys below; the Chesapeake Bay program, a seven-state effort just now turning the corner; and rules for chemicals that are changing sperm counts and genders around the world.
Were all those gun-toting rallies really for dirty lakes and lower sperm counts? Who knew?
Within the overall federal budget you could not find the cost of these efforts with a microscope. Nor could the proponents of these cuts in Congress. They were told what [regulations] to cut in industries ranging from chemicals to agriculture - and not surreptitiously. They actually asked for the list. Granted, the cuts also include public television (sorry, Kermit) and rapid rail, but the lesson seems obvious. This is not about being broke. It is about breaking things some folks and their corporate sponsors never accepted in the first place.
Were this really about being broke, we would not be, in the same breath, insisting on trillion (not million, not billion) dollar tax breaks for the wealthiest strata of America. We would not be renewing "royalty holidays" (another trillion or so for the largest oil and gas companies in the world, including BP, that are enjoying record profits while the rest of us struggle over mortgages.) We would not be perpetuating the same tax breaks for our richest citizens, undercharging royalties for public resources (waiving some altogether), and then slamming schools and public heath. We would, in a balanced fashion, be trying to balance budgets.
Then there is climate change, which the Congress, having refused to act on for years, is about to de-fund the EPA from acting on, because (you guessed it) this is a matter for Congress. The rhetoric is no less bizarre. One member has accused "nefarious" climate change scientists of "whipping up a global frenzy about a phenomenon that is questionable at best." Not to be outdone, a sitting senator called it "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on America." One Minnesota representative explained, "God is not capricious. He has given us a creation that is dynamically stable," while another from Illinois declared that "the Earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over."
How does one debate that? We do not debate it, as evidenced by a recent hearing with the EPA Administrator that quickly degenerated into a insult-fest by a member from Louisiana. This polemic, which has left commonsense far behind, drags with it all of the others. Industry smells blood. As goes climate changes, so goes the dreaded agency.
One may view the cuts as sage, stupid or God's will, but one thing seems very clear: Neither climate change controls, cement kiln emissions, or Kermit the Frog are about balancing the budget. "We are broke" is not a reason. If we wanted to fix broke, we would. We are doing something else.
- Oliver Houck