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Newsletter | Revolving Door Project Newsletter | April 3, 2024

Who’s Afraid of the “Deep State”?

Corporate CrackdownGovernanceGovernment CapacityRight-Wing Media

The most powerful anti-government voices are the ones trying to get away with poisoning people, stealing wages, and rigging financial markets. 

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

Show me a politician rabble-rousing about “unelected bureaucrats” running the country, and I’ll show you someone who wants those bureaucrats to be serving their interests, not the country’s. Show me a company crying foul about government overreach, and I’ll show you a company trying to get away with—in some cases, literally—murder. 

Before we get into some disturbing examples of this, we’ve got two great resources to share with you this week worth sending along to that Trumpy relative on Facebook who posts about “draining the swamp.” One is an article in The Conversation from two professors, Jaime Kucinskas at Hamilton College and James L. Perry at Indiana University, who study the “inner workings of democracy.” And they’ve got good news for us:

“Our years of research about the people who work in the federal government finds that they care deeply about their work, aiding the public and pursuing the stability and integrity of government. Most of them are devoted civil servants. Across hundreds of interviews and surveys of people who have made their careers in government, what stands out most to us is their commitment to civic duty without regard to partisan politics.”

For those who prefer video, the New York Times put out a genuinely charming six-minute video op-ed last month: “It Turns Out the ‘Deep State’ Is Actually Kind of Awesome.” It cuts from ominous footage of Trump bellowing, “Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state,” to a road trip montage in which the reporters voyage deep into the belly of the beast—that is, to the offices of the Marshall Space Flight Center, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. 

There, they talk with three “unelected bureaucrats” about their genuinely heroic work executing a mission that diverted an asteroid from its course, replacing water pipes to get lead out of our drinking water, and raiding slaughter houses to rescue over 100 children from dangerous child labor practices. 

“I don’t even want to imagine what would happen if no one did this job,” said Nancy Alcantara, the Acting Director for Enforcement in the Wage and Hour Division for the Midwest. We agree. And when a government shutdown or appropriations austerity looms, we’ve tried in this newsletter to make tangible the cost of losing the labor of public servants like Alcantara. 

Budget Cuts Can Be Deadly

“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,” I wrote last month. Last spring, my newsletter “The GOP Budget Plan Would Ruin Millions of Lives” was not hyperbole. I detailed how the proposed funding cuts would fire thousands of food inspectors and thousands of firefighters, bring workplace safety inspections down to the lowest in fifty years, imperil water access for millions in the drought-riddled west, diminish the number of healthcare centers serving rural areas, and so many other harms. 

Imposing budget cuts on federal agencies also precludes agencies from expanding their enforcement work. And unfortunately, this work needs expanding. There is still lead in water pipes; there are still children illegally working in dangerous conditions. Anyone who calls for a smaller government should be forced to reckon with the sheer extent of corporate criminality. We probably wouldn’t need so many federal workers if the government didn’t have to clean up so many companies’ messes. (Which is not to say that certain branches of government like the Pentagon aren’t also polluters-in-chief.) 

Luckily for the deficit hawks out there, enforcement offices—yes, we’re going to keep banging on this drum!—bring in more money than they spend. So there is simply no fiscal case against expanding enforcement work to crack down on corporate abuses. You’d think that the lesson we learned from the Inflation Reduction Act’s IRS budget increases bringing in hundreds of millions more from wealthy tax-cheats would be easily extended to other enforcement offices that fine companies for exploitative and anticompetitive behavior. (And the IRS is just warming up! If allowed to bloom fully, those efforts will bring in hundreds of billions of dollars.) But the obstacle there is how many politicians are bought and paid for by those corporations.

It’s Not The Deep State You Should Be Worrying About

As Sierra Club Climate Director Patrick Drupp pointed out Monday in response to Politico’s reporting that Republicans are working to overturn new safety requirements for chemical facilities and petroleum refineries, “If you oppose protections to safeguard communities from exposure to hydrofluoric acid, you’re on the wrong side of things. It’s pretty simple.” 

Hydrofluoric acid, which is commonly used to make refrigerants, is highly toxic to the human body. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has documented dozens of workplace accidents involving hydrofluoric acid, some fatal. The details are grisly. But according to Texas Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw, the “radical environmentalists of this administration” who “believe modern science and civilization are a scourge, not a benefit” are delusional for thinking that it would be better for workers and communities to not be exposed to toxic chemicals, and that the companies which profit from making toxic chemicals should be responsible for strengthening their risk management plans. 

For another example, take asbestos. Asbestos exposure is linked to 40,000 U.S. deaths every year from lung cancer and other illnesses. As of two weeks ago, the last form of asbestos still in use by industry is fully banned—a historic move by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bureaucrats that finalized that ban can now go home to their families and say, “I saved lives today.” You know who opposed an asbestos ban? The American Chemistry Council, an industry advocacy group made up of dozens of fossil fuel and chemical companies, and a dozen Republican attorneys general, both of whom said a ban would negatively impact the economy and chemical industry. 

Last week, I drew the connection in a piece for The American Prospect between former Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s current natural gas advocacy group and its petrochemical industry backers, including the American Chemistry Council, which successfully lobbied Ohio Sen. JD Vance to delay new rail safety provisions in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio disaster last year. I asked, with Ryan working for industry interests outside Congress, and Vance working for them inside Congress, who wins? It’s not Ohioans. It’s because public service means something that those who make a mockery of it deserve our scorn. And on the flipside, the career public servants who work in the “shadows” of the administrative state do not deserve the knee-jerk distrust that partisan actors try to seed. 

There are of course so many ways in which executive branch actors need to be held accountable to the public interest, and that’s our work too. But rest assured that if civil servants actually overreach against the rich and powerful, an army of corporate attorneys will step in to protect them. So many government errors are errors of omission–the failure to enforce public interest laws. 

While appropriations battles in Congress are often where we fight to draw attention to important agencies getting short shrift, perhaps the greatest threat to a functioning administrative state is the current extremist Supreme Court. We’d recommend reading Lisa Grave’s piece in Progressive out last weekend on “What’s Next on the Supreme Court’s Chopping Block?” which draws attention to a handful of cases poised to wreak havoc on the government, cases which she says “should really be called Koch v. America, because the plaintiffs are being used as fronts for Koch’s extreme agenda.”

Grave’s piece digs into how Koch money is fueling the legal effort to overturn a longstanding legal precedent that’s been cited in over 15,000 cases in order to enable industry actors to challenge anything the government does that might cost them money, even when it saves lives, makes our economy more equal, protects the environment, and ensures our rights. 

If you’re a fan of democracy, then it’s not the “deep state” you should be worried about—it’s John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Sam Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett… and the corporations whose interests they’re more interested in protecting than the public’s.

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

Jerome Powell’s Fingerprints Are on the Next Banking Crisis

US senator accused of cozy ties to Apple after leading charge against congressional stock trading

The Republican Squawk Committee’s FY25 Budget Kills Two Birds With One Stone: Social Security and Medicare

Hsu Steps Up: OCC Chief’s Policy Flurry Makes Waves and Provokes Consternation

Revolving Door Spins as Ex-Fossil Fuel Regulator Joins Carbon Capture Firm

Corporate CrackdownGovernanceGovernment CapacityRight-Wing Media

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