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Our elected officials set the tone for the upcoming budget debate early in the wake of the 2010 elections by trading expensive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires in order to extend unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans who still needed them in the wake of the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Just three months later, the same people who pushed to eliminate billions of dollars in revenue suddenly insisted the government didn’t have enough money. How did they propose to make up the difference? Not by ending the tax cuts for the wealthy. Not by eliminating loopholes that allow corporations to avoid paying the taxes they owe. They wanted to cut social services for the people who needed them most — the poor and middle class.
Some of the cuts that made it into the final deal were truly inexcusable. But thanks to more than 17,000 Friends of the Earth activists who contacted their elected officials urging them to reject cuts to vital programs, the worst of the cuts — including a dangerous provision to shackle the EPA — were removed from the final agreement that kept the government running.
But another debate is shaping up now that will define the role of government for years to come. Most Americans think that government should exist to protect people by enforcing common-sense regulation and providing a social safety net. However, ultra-conservatives want to reshape the federal government by slashing funding for programs that safeguard Americans and leave government in the hands of powerful corporations.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has placed himself firmly in the camp of those who want to radically diminish government by producing a budget plan that erodes social safety nets such as Medicare and Medicaid and slashes funding for bedrock environmental programs such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Those who claim the government needs to cut “trillions, not billions” say there is not enough money to continue to help those who are struggling. Yet despite its rhetoric about the deficit, Representative Ryan’s proposal would do almost nothing to pay back the debt. The Ryan plan spends almost all of its savings on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporate polluters — it is simply an attempt to reshape the role of government.
There are responsible ways to run our government that do not call for the evisceration of essential safeguards and protections. Friends of the Earth has long been at the forefront of responsible federal budgeting. In particular, we have worked since 1994 with Taxpayers for Common Sense to eliminate federal subsidies that promote pollution through the Green Scissors campaign. The most recent Green Scissors report released by Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Public Citizen and Environment America highlighted more than $200 billion in wasteful subsidies that are harmful to the environment.
Ending subsidies for polluting special interests is an important starting point for putting our fiscal house in order. Subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are ripe to be cut. President Obama has proposed that almost $50 billion in subsidies for fossil fuels be eliminated over the next five years.
The President’s proposal is a good first step, but it is also just the tip of the iceberg of the subsidies that the government is doling out to the fossil fuels industry. We need to eliminate all giveaways to all polluting industries.
Eliminating harmful subsidies to polluting industries is an important step toward responsible budgeting. But we will also need to reinforce our environmental laws and raise revenue to ensure that we have the money necessary to regulate polluters. Charging polluters for the damage they cause and using the money raised to fund essential government services such as the cleanup from their pollution just makes sense. Friends of the Earth supports a carbon tax, which would charge corporate polluters for their emissions of the carbon pollution that causes climate change, while raising revenue.
There is no reason to sacrifice social services and programs that are in the public interest in order to keep industry fat cats rich. By cutting subsidies to polluters and making them pay for their pollution, we can afford a clean environment, healthy families and good jobs.