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Newsletter | Revolving Door Project Newsletter | March 6, 2024

Throwing the Public’s Defenders Under the (Mini)Bus

Anti-MonopolyConsumer ProtectionGovernment CapacityIRS

Here’s the budget story—complete with heroes and villains—that the White House should be telling.

This newsletter was originally published on our Substack. Read and subscribe here.

By Friday, Congress needs to vote on a proposed “minibus”—a package of six out of the 12 necessary government spending bills for fiscal year 2024—to avoid a partial government shutdown. We’ve got a handy explainer of all the federal budget terms you wish you didn’t need to know, from “minibus” to “poison pill” to the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, which is the reason why our country’s grotesque military budget is getting a $26 billion boost up to $886 billion, while non-defense spending is getting a $4 billion cut, down to $773 billion.

While there are plenty of damning narratives to derive from the latest in government appropriations dysfunction, there is one story in particular that we’re anxious to see told by the White House and Congressional Democrats, and it’s this:

The federal employees who work to protect the public from everything from price gouging to premature death continue to have their ranks slashed and resources taken away by the Republican Party.

Price Gouging. Shrinkflation. Union Busting. Wage Theft. Poisoned Water. Unsafe Transportation. Monopoly Power. Republicans are actively seeking to cut the salaries and jobs of people working to protect Americans from the many manifestations of predatory corporate greed. It’s right there in the federal budget they’ve negotiated.

One of the six bills in the minibus funds programs across “Commerce, Justice and Science,” including the folks in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division who are hard at work reining in giants like Google (and soon, Apple). The Antitrust Division is also working to block mergers like JetBlue/Spirit Airlines which pose threats to consumer and worker’s wallets. The minibus would cut the Division’s budget by $45 million, bringing its total budget down to $233 million—nearly 20 percent less than the projected budget of $278 million. (For further context, even the projected budget was still just one-fourth of what Apple spent on legal fees back in 2017—a testament to the Goliaths the Antitrust Division goes after every day.) 

Antitrust enforcers do have some defenders in the Senate. Several Senators wrote to the appropriations committee yesterday urging the committee to restore the Antitrust Division’s funding, and Senator Klobuchar gave a speech last night on the Senate floor on how the appropriations committee’s cuts to Antitrust Division spending would undermine the bipartisan Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act passed less than 15 months ago, which was intended to divert more money to the antitrust enforcers going up against monopoly power. “This is not an appropriations decision,” she said. “It’s a policy against antitrust enforcement that undermines a bipartisan law.” 

David Dayen had an excellent write-up yesterday of the damage Congress is seeking to do to the Antitrust Division right as the White House leans on and seeks to build upon its substantial wins ahead of the State of the Union, and the election. As our research director Andrea Beaty said in a statement Tuesday, while the administration’s recently announced strike force against price gouging led by the DOJ and FTC is “an exciting step forward, the threat posed by Republican efforts to slash enforcement budgets is dire.” 

Our question is, will we see the White House come out swinging against this attack on antitrust enforcement?

Enforcement: You Gotta Spend Money To Make Money

Cutting antitrust enforcement budgets is not a money-saving proposition either. DOJ Antitrust brings in hundreds of millions in fees and penalties from corporations each year. Cutting the Antitrust Division’s budget actually increases the deficit, while depriving the public of some of their best defenders. 

We’ve written for Democracy Journal about how cutting the funding for the enforcement of environmental, antitrust, consumer protection, and securities laws shares two major ramifications: 1) it weakens the impact of the some of the best laws we have—the ones designed to protect the public from harm, and 2) it allows corporations to pocket their unlawful profits, instead of that money becoming government revenue secured through fines and penalties.

These enforcement offices bring in far more money than they spend. It’s why the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 increasing the IRS budget is widely known to bring down the deficit. Now the IRS has more resources to go after rich tax evaders, who appear to dodge quite a lot of taxes—$150 billion a year by the latest count. So why are Republicans targeting IRS funding for steep cuts, knowing that will increase the deficit? Because their Big Business backers want to be able to break the law with impunity, of course. Senator Whitehouse was right on the money with this recent statement

“As MAGA Republicans again push the country to the brink of a government shutdown supposedly over deficit concerns, they also demand to slash IRS funding for cracking down on wealthy tax cheats — a $44 billion gift to their billionaire donors that will add $24 billion to the deficit.

“Republicans want wealthy tax cheat donors to rob the public with impunity.”

It would be great to hear the White House bang on this same drum. When the jobs of the government officials who go up against wealthy and corporate offenders are imperiled by appropriations cuts, the White House should defend those jobs stridently. Pick fights! Compel response! Generate the scarcest political resource of 2024: attention!

Eroding Biden-Era Funding Successes

It’s not only the IRS whose 2022 funding boost is being clawed back by Congressional Republicans. While 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act significantly increased the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund site cleanup program, Congressional Republicans are now sabotaging that success by seeking to “offset that cash influx” with a 7 percent budget cut for the EPA. 

According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the EPA’s reduced budget will still maintain current staffing levels. But that’s a far cry from the staffing increases that EPA needs, as its resources have been steadily eroded by austerity politics for decades. Whittling away at EPA resources in the minibus is inflicting small wounds where significant damage has already been sustained under Trump’s four-year effort to destroy the agency—destruction that he threatens to wreak again

Behold, decades of slow capacity erosion… 

Methodology disclaimer: due to inconsistencies in when budgets are passed each year and January 2024 being the most recent month for which the consumer price index (CPI) is available, January of each fiscal year was used to calculate the CPI, i.e. the amount in 2024 dollars.

The 2024 minibus would cut EPA enforcement spending by over $16.6 million from the previous year across several programs. It would cut toxics risk review and prevention by $4.8 million from the previous year; $68.8 million below the requested budget. It would cut funding for research into endocrine disruptors, the toxic chemicals wreaking havoc on people’s hormone systems, by $818,000 from the prior year, and by nearly $2 million from the requested funding.

The harmful nature of these cuts is quite explicit, even in budget documents. Under the Environmental Programs and Management’s “Ensure Safe Water” line item, we see spending go down $6.8 million from the prior year, and nearly $28 million below the requested amount. Likewise, under “Ensure Clean Water,” we have spending cut by nearly $9.4 million from 2023 levels, and $55.3 million below the requested amount. It’s not much of a leap to infer that the people who want to defund programs designed to ensure safe and clean water are happy to harm millions of people if it lines their pockets.

Piling on even further, the appropriations for audits and investigations for hazardous substance Superfund sites shrinks by $472,000 from the prior year, and enforcement appropriations too, by a whopping $177.7 million—counteracting the progress made by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s reinstated Superfund chemical taxes. Republicans are also seeking spending cuts on everything from inland oil spill program enforcement to leaking underground storage tank enforcement to pesticides enforcement. 

From the funding levels they propose, it’s clear that Republicans don’t mind if more kids get asthma and more people die prematurely from exposure to pollution. It’s high time that the Democrats recognize that they can be the party of “more people living longer, healthier lives,” and act accordingly. One place to start would be to stop capitulating on EPA funding as some sort of niche green corner of the government, an easy first casualty of partisan strife, and to get loud about what the EPA actually does and could do if it hadn’t been systematically undermined for decades.

It should be bipartisan to want to protect Americans from exposures to pollutants and toxins that cause everything from asthma to heart disease to lung cancer. And it should cause vocal outrage when one party decides to undermine the people who enact and enforce bedrock environmental protection laws. 

Republicans are getting away with something that should be really bad politics, but it’s only bad politics if Democrats actually play politics on it. 

Thanks to my colleagues Andrea Beaty and Fatou Ndiaye for providing research for this newsletter.

Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: 

The Revolving Door Project Commends Price “Strike Force,” Calls On Biden Administration To Continue Cracking Down On Corporate Greed

An RDP Explanation Of The Texas Border Dispute

Departing RealPage Exec’s Flimsy Rant Against Rent Control

Republican Attorney Generals Letter Is A Clear Attempt To Misconstrue Biden’s Good Actions on Climate Change

In Leaping to Defend Wendy’s, This WaPo Column Tells A Whopper

RELEASE: Treasury Must Continue To Stand Firm Against Industry Fearmongering and Regulatory Capture in Finalizing Clean Hydrogen Guidance

Ken Cuccinelli and the Persuasive, Pervasive Politics of Cruelty

Utilities Are Buying Pricier ‘Responsible Gas.’ But for What Climate Benefit?

Google hit with $2.3B lawsuit by 32 media groups over digital ad practices

Larry Summers’ Undisclosed Corporate Ties Threaten Harvard’s Credibility

Anti-MonopolyConsumer ProtectionGovernment CapacityIRS

More articles by Hannah Story Brown

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