07/26/2011 04:10 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2011

Doubling Down on Failure

To understand what's at stake in the battle over the federal budget, it helps to look back a decade and ask ourselves, "How are Americans doing today, and how were they doing on January 1, 2001?"

There are, indeed, a small number of Americans who would say they are doing better today. North Dakota, because of new oil wealth, is booming. And the very top of the income pyramid -- perhaps the top 1 percent, might say they are better off because of the cut in their federal -- and, for some states -- tax rates since that time.

But almost all Americans today are worse off than they were ten years ago, and they are worse off because of the very approach -- slash government, put more of the tax burden on the middle class, reduce both the social and the environmental safety net -- being advocated today by the Republicans.

Look at the environmental harvest of the last decade. An entire generation of young American women have been exposed to so much mercury, largely from eating fish, that in many pregnancies, mercury poses a health risk to the baby. Over 100,000 Americans are definitely not better off -- they have died because of exposure to uncontrolled pollution from coal-fired power plants. All over the country children and families have access to fewer parks, and those parks are less well maintained because of budget cuts. Farmers in Texas are suffering incredible drought, while those next door in the Mississippi Valley face devastating floods and tornadoes -- but we continue to ramp up extreme climate with our emissions of greenhouse pollutants.

A decade ago both General Motors and Chrysler could have been rescued before bankruptcy and downsizing -- saving the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of families -- if the federal government had only acted to make them produce more fuel efficient vehicles on time, instead of waiting for the crisis. The nation could have begun, while the federal government was in surplus, to invest in repairing and restoring our highways, bridges, mass transit systems, sewers and other infrastructure, preparing us for a highly competitive 21st century.

In 2001 we still had time and funding flexibility to have protected New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated it. America could have kept its lead in renewable-energy technologies like wind and solar instead of ceding jobs, innovation, and supply chains to Europe and Asia; we could have put proper regulation in place for off-shore oil drilling and avoided the Macondo blow-out; and hundreds of mountains and thousands of miles of Appalachian streams had not yet been blown into smithereens so that we could pump even more pollution from coal into our air and waterways.

None of these problems was solved by the private sector; indeed, by their nature they are problems the private sector cannot solve alone, and largely problems that only the national government can address.

Now the philosophy that led to the most devastating decade in American history since the Great Depression and World War II is back, but on steroids.  The Interior Appropriations bill just passed by the House of Representatives is, without a doubt, the worst environmental bill ever seriously considered by either house of Congress.  Among other things, it would:

  • Open the Grand Canyon to uranium mining and our coasts to oil drilling.
  • Put our health at risk by slashing funding for the EPA and blocking safeguards against deadly mercury and other toxic pollution.
  • Endanger our wild places and wildlife by defunding the Endangered Species Act and land conservation.
  • Block the EPA from using the Clean Water Act to protect our water from waste dumping, pesticides, sewage, fertilizers, oil spills, and also from safeguarding drinking water sources for 117 million Americans.

It is being justified in the name of deficit reduction and helping the economy -- it will, of course, make the deficit worse as health care costs soar, damaging the economy by undermining the natural systems that support communities and making the next ten years even grimmer for 98 percent of the American people.

We have tried this pathway once, and it didn't work. Now we are being asked to double-down on failure.