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The hollowing out of government

The chemical and fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas, where at least 15 were killed and more than 200 injured a few weeks ago hadn't been fully inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. (A partial inspection by a different agency in 2011 resulted in $5,250 in fines.)

OSHA and its state partners have a total of 2,200 inspectors charged with ensuring the safety of more than 8 million workplaces employing 130 million workers. That comes to about one inspector for every 59,000 American workers.

There's no way it can do its job with so few resources, but OSHA has been systematically hollowed out for years under Republican administrations and congresses that have despised the agency since its inception. In effect, many of our nation's worker-safety laws and rules have been quietly repealed because there aren't enough inspectors to enforce them.

That's been the Republican strategy in general: When they can't directly repeal laws they don't like, they repeal them indirectly by hollowing them out -- denying funds to fully implement them, and reducing funds to enforce them.

Consider taxes. Republicans have been unable to round up enough votes to cut taxes on big corporations and the wealthy as much as they'd like, so what do they do? They're hollowing out the IRS. As they cut its enforcement budget -- presto! -- tax collections decline.

Despite an increasing number of billionaires and multimillionaires using every tax dodge imaginable -- laundering their money through phantom corporations and tax havens (Remember Mitt Romney's tax returns?) -- the IRS budget has been cut by 17 percent since 2002, adjusted for inflation.

To manage the $594.5 million in additional cuts required by the sequester, the agency has announced it will furlough each of its more than 89,000 employees for at least five days this year.

This budget stinginess doesn't save the government money. Quite the opposite. Less IRS enforcement means less revenue. It's been estimated that every dollar invested in the IRS' enforcement, modernization and management system reduces the federal budget deficit by $200, and that furloughing 1,800 IRS "policemen" will cost the Treasury $4.5 billion in lost revenue.

But congressional Republicans aren't interested in more revenue. Their goal is to cut taxes on big corporations and the wealthy.

Rep. Charles Boustany, the Louisiana Republican who heads the House subcommittee overseeing the IRS, says the IRS sequester cuts should stay in force. He calls for an overhaul of the tax code instead.

In a similar manner, congressional Republicans and their patrons on Wall Street who opposed the Dodd-Frank financial reform law have been hollowing out the law by making sure agencies charged with implementing it don't have the funds they need to do the job.

As a result, much of Dodd-Frank -- including the so-called "Volcker Rule" restrictions on the kind of derivatives trading that got the Street into trouble in the first place -- is still on the drawing boards.

Perhaps more than any other law, Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Yet despite holding more than 33 votes to repeal it, they still haven't succeeded.

So what do they do? They try to hollow it out. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly denied funding requests to implement Obamacare, leaving Health and Human Services (the agency charged with designing the rules under the act and enforcing them) so shorthanded that it has to delay much of it.

Even before the sequester, the agency was running on the same budget it had before Obamacare was enacted. Now it's lost billions more.

A new insurance marketplace specifically for small business, for example, was supposed to be up and running in January. But officials now say it won't be available until 2015 in the 33 states where the federal government will be running insurance markets known as exchanges.

This is a potentially large blow to Obamacare's political support. A major selling point for the legislation had been providing affordable health insurance to small businesses and their employees.

Yes, and eroding political support is exactly what congressional Republicans want. They fear that Obamacare, once fully implemented, will be too popular to dismantle. So they're out to delay it as long as possible while keeping up a drumbeat about its flaws.

Repealing laws by hollowing them out -- failing to fund their enforcement or implementation -- works because the public doesn't know that it's happening. Enactment of a law attracts attention; defunding it doesn't.

The strategy also seems to bolster the Republican view that government is incompetent. If government can't do what it's supposed to do -- keep workplaces safe, ensure that the rich pay taxes they owe, protect small investors, implement Obamacare -- why give it any additional responsibility?

The public doesn't know that the real reason why the government isn't doing its job is because it's being hollowed out.

Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Beyond Outrage," now available in paperback. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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