This article was first published in The Hill newspaper on March 17, 2017.
When budget chief Mick Mulvaney defended President’s Trump proposal to end Meals on Wheels and other safety net programs as an act of “compassion,” he inadvertently did more to expose the callous attacks on America’s social safety net than he did to hide them. In too many areas, Trump’s budget puts ideology and special interests ahead of protecting the most vulnerable, particularly seniors and children. That is especially true with the radical cuts proposed for the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would slash enforcement against polluters and make deep cuts in the agency’s work to protect public health.
In 2016, the American Heart Association warned that air pollutants from coal burning and from vehicle exhaust lead to high blood pressure — a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. They advised that seniors and others with high blood pressure should carefully watch EPA’s air pollution monitoring system and limit their exposure on unhealthy air days.
Those air monitoring systems — and the Clean Air Act standards that are designed to reduce the number of “code red” unhealthy air days — are now under attack by President Trump’s proposed EPA budget cuts. His first year budget calls for a cut of 31 percent to the agency, a step toward the goal he has stated of virtually eliminating the agency altogether, leaving only “little tidbits” in place.
That’s bad news for seniors, children, and others vulnerable to asthma and other health illnesses triggered by air pollution. The EPA has been very successful at reducing pollution levels over the past 45 years, but the job of protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink is far from done. Today, up to 10 million homes still get their drinking water through lead pipes — in Flint, Michigan and across the nation. Half of all Americans live in counties with unhealthy air quality.
The man who will have to advise states and cities on how to manage Trump’s budget to axe to clean air programs is Bill Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Becker told me that state and local officials responsible for clean air are “fearful” that proposed cuts will harm the public health, “particularly the elderly, the infirm, and children.”
According to leaked documents Becker has obtained from within the administration, Trump’s budget includes cuts of as much as 45 percent to grants for state and local agencies that fund the people, programs and monitors designed to clean up the air. The loss of EPA financial support will cut deepest in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and West Virginia.
Weakening the air monitoring system is only one of the likely casualties of the Trump budget, which “takes a sledgehammer to EPA,” according to the Washington Post. The budget eliminates more than 50 programs and slashes enforcement, science, toxic safety, and the cleanup of the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. The EPA’s budget is already 20 percent lower than it was in 2010, so any budget cuts would bite especially deep. The Trump administration is also doubling down on its war on the EPA by pairing budget cuts with a series of executive orders to weaken clean water and clean air safeguards that are already in place.
What will taxpayers get for these budget cuts to EPA? The entire EPA budget accounts for only two-tenths of 1 percent of federal spending. The savings from Trump’s budget cut to EPA averages out to 34 cents per week for every taxpayer — money that will be shifted to other Trump priorities and never be seen by taxpayers that Mulvaney is compassionately protecting.
Fortunately, Trump cannot make these deep cuts to the EPA unilaterally. Congress has the power of the purse, and the budget is being criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike. It remains to be seen if the Republican majority in Congress will stand up for seniors and all of us when it takes up the EPA budget. Make no mistake — polluter lobbyists who have long fought to cut the EPA down to size will turn out in force.
But standing in their way are voters who strongly side with protecting EPA. In fact, more than three quarters of Trump voters want to preserve or increase the strength of federal regulations on drinking water and clean air, according to a December 2016 poll by Morning Consult.
Every minute we breathe cleaner air thanks to the laws passed under the environmental stewardship of our parents and grandparents. We are all the beneficiaries of the legacy our parents left to us. It would be a moral failing to abandon those same seniors who now face the same prospect of breathing dirtier air when they are most vulnerable to its direct impacts on blood pressure, respiratory illness, and heart disease.
A child born today faces the possibility that the air they breathe will be dirtier and the water they drink will be less safe because of Trump’s war on the EPA. For our nation’s elderly, they face not only threats to themselves, but the prospect of stripping away the environmental legacy they thought they had secured for their grandchildren. There is nothing compassionate about that.