The Right Way to Cut Federal Spending

Resembling a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, deficit hawks are taking over Washington. They held up an extension of unemployment benefits and are poised to attack Social Security, Medicare and other supposedly out-of-control forms of federal spending. At a time when government outlays, at least those of the safety net variety, should be expanding to address the ongoing economic crisis, Republicans and many Democrats alike have bought into the dubious idea that now is a time for fiscal austerity.

Apart from the battle over entitlements, there is more sensible effort under way to cut spending that benefits those who need it the least: large corporations. One welcome side effect of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster is that increased attention is being paid to the ways that federal policies reward the likes of BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips. On the Fourth of July, the New York Times devoted part of its front page to a story on this largesse, writing: “oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.”

According to a detailed analysis prepared by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in 2008, total federal subsidies to the oil and gas industry in 2006 were about $3.5 billion. The Times article puts the current cost at about $4 billion. A recent Citizens for Tax Justice report points out that these tax breaks do little to benefit the public and serve mainly to fatten profits and enrich investors.

Efforts to eliminate these subsidies—including one pursued last month by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—have generally come to naught, given the petroleum industry’s formidable influence in Congress. One of the more persistent initiatives is Green Scissors, a 15-year-old project that targets subsidies not only to the energy sector but also to agribusiness, mining and highways — challenging them on environmental as well as fiscal grounds. The Green Scissors 2010 report – just issued by Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Environment America and Public Citizen – tallies more than $31 billion in oil and gas subsidies that could be cut over the next five years. The total Green Scissors hit-list amounts to more than $200 billion for that period, with much of the remainder coming from subsidies to other energy sectors such as coal, nuclear and biofuels.

Attacking these costly and harmful subsidies is a noble endeavor, but it may be more effective not to take on the entire energy industry at once. Another significant feature of the Gulf of Mexico disaster is the breakdown of corporate solidarity. BP’s major rivals have taken pains to distance themselves from the British company, implicitly depicting it as a renegade on safety matters. Four of them just formed a rapid-response force to deal with future spills without involving BP in the planning.

In this context, it might make sense to focus on making certain companies, beginning with BP, ineligible for all or part of the federal energy subsidy banquet. Until now, the tax breaks and other benefits have been treated as entitlements, there for the taking by any company involved in certain activities.

Why not modify the Internal Revenue Code so that the subsidies are not available to companies with a poor safety or environmental record, especially those like BP that have paid criminal fines for violations in those areas? The federal government has an Excluded Parties List (albeit underused) for contractors that have been barred from doing business with Uncle Sam. Shouldn’t there be a similar list for subsidy recipients?

Even better would be the creation of good-behavior criteria for receiving those subsidies in the first place. If corporations were required to have a record free of significant violations of regulations relating to the environment, occupational safety and health, employment practices, antitrust, etc., then there would probably be a lot fewer recipients and it might be easier to do away with these giveaways once and for all.

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