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From EPA to TSA, Agencies Devoted to Nation’s Health and Safety Are Going Unfunded During Shutdown

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The partial government shutdown has entered its 20th day. On Saturday, it will become the longest shutdown in U.S. history if a deal is not reached. President Trump reportedly stormed out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Wednesday after they refused to back a deal to fund a wall on the southern border. Schumer accused Trump of throwing a temper tantrum. Trump described the meeting as a “total waste of time.” We speak with Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. The group just released a report titled “As Shutdown Drags On, Agencies Devoted to Consumer and Worker Health and Safety Unfunded and Deprioritized.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The partial government shutdown has entered its 20th day. On Saturday, it will become the longest shutdown in U.S. history, if a deal is not reached. On Wednesday, President Trump reportedly stormed out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after they refused to back a deal to fund a wall on the southern border. Schumer accused Trump of throwing a temper tantrum. Trump described the meeting as a “total waste of time.”

This comes as the impact of the shutdown is growing across the country. The shutdown has left 380,000 workers furloughed and another 420,000 forced to work without pay. The Food and Drug Administration has announced it has suspended all routine food inspections. At the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 13,000 employees have been furloughed, forcing the agency to halt work on air quality monitoring, enforcement of toxic polluters and clean-ups at Superfund sites. States are scrambling to administer SNAP food stamp benefits for 3.4 million Americans, after more than $4 billion in federal payments failed to materialize. Housing advocates fear the shutdown could lead to the evictions of thousands of low-income renters who live in government-subsidized apartments. Over 1,100 contracts between the government and private landlords have already expired.

At the TSA, there are reports of a wave of resignations by airport screeners because they’re not being paid. The American Federation of Government Employees sued the government last week over the situation. Hydrick Thomas, president of the union’s TSA Council, said the shutdown is causing a, quote, “massive security risk for American travelers” as the TSA is unable to hire or train new workers during the shutdown.

We’re joined right now by Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. The group just released a report titled “As Shutdown Drags On, Agencies Devoted to Consumer and Worker Health and Safety Unfunded and Deprioritized.”

Robert Weissman, welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you start off by talking about what will happen to these workers? We’re talking about 800,000 workers. For people to understand, those that have been furloughed, who have not been working for the last weeks, will never get paid. And those that are working, like TSA agents, if they have not quit, supposedly will be paid when the government shutdown ends. But talk about the significance of this. Yesterday the president said they’re all happy.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right. Well, of course, the president is delusional. For the 800,000 workers, you know, that’s—most people in America, including most of these workers, live paycheck to paycheck, so they’re missing paychecks, and they’re just going to have to scramble, and they’re being put in impossible situations.

Historically, when these shutdowns have occurred, when it’s settled, the workers are paid, both the ones who are forced to work, who are legally required to be at their jobs even though they are not being paid, and the ones who have been furloughed and are not working.

There’s another category of people who are comparably being affected, who will not be paid ever, which is the huge number of government contractors. You know, as you’ve discussed in recent shows, the government contracts out, because it’s privatized so much of its business, to a huge number of agencies and workers. Those people aren’t working now, and they will not be reimbursed.

So, people are scrambling. And it’s huge here in the Washington, D.C., area, but the federal government is spread across the country. It is happening in every state and every community across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what’s at risk, from agency to agency.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right. Well, there’s a couple ways to think about it. One is the things that they are not doing. And the agencies are not doing a lot, as you were describing earlier. So, the EPA has cut back on routine inspections of plants and toxic facilities. The Food and Drug Administration is not doing its regular inspections of food packaging facilities. The pipeline safety agency is scaling back its inspections. The Securities and Exchange Commission is more or less shut down, which means it’s not really able to investigate anything. The efforts at the Federal Communication Commission—or, the Federal Trade Communication to monitor ongoing consumer fraud, shut down. So, all this stuff is happening, and the corporations who were normally being inspected or held into account at least a little bit by government enforcement, it’s free rein for them right now. And there’s really no avenue of redress for consumers, for these very immediate things that are happening.

You know, maybe one of the most worrisome ones, in addition to TSA, is at the Federal Aviation Administration, where inspection of airplanes, the routine inspection by the government, has been suspended. The companies still do their own inspection, but, you know, I feel a lot safer knowing that the government is independently doing inspections. And that’s not happening. So, that’s one whole huge category.

The other category is things that are still going on by these workers who—these employees who are forced to work even though they’re not being paid. That’s a huge number of government functions. It’s not possible for people who are not being paid to do their job well. It just has to be the case, if you’re worried about paying your bills, your credit card, what you’re going to do with your kids, you’re upset, and you’re not focused on the job, and you’re not going to do as good a job. So, the air traffic controllers are still at work, but they’re not being paid, and you’ve got to worry about how well they’re able to do their job. You’ve reported it also, you know, at the border. The border agents are not being paid right now. So, it has to be that they’re going to be worse at their job, more brutal, shorter-tempered and so on. And as this drags on, it’s going to get more and more severe.

There are also a category of government activities that either have stopped or are going to stop in the future, including, that you talked about, the provision of—the dealmaking for contracts for low-income people. We may see a total end to payments for food stamps at the end of the—sometime in February. Funding for the federal courts, at least on the civil side—well, funding for the federal courts is going to run out later this month, and probably most civil suits in federal courts are going to be suspended. This stuff is going to really stack up as we move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: FDA. We all remember what happened around the holidays with the romaine lettuce recall, which has just been announced to be over. What would happen if something like that happened right now at the FDA, Rob?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, the things that are life-threatening, either with regard to food safety or other things, they say, “Look, we’ve got that covered.” The problem is, you don’t know that something is life-threatening until it emerges as an outbreak. So then they’ll be staffed on it, and they’ll find a way to deal with it, on an emergency recall like that. But they won’t do their forward-looking inspections that might have prevented it in the first place.

It’s the exact same thing at the highway—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Routine recalls and inspections aren’t going on. If there’s something that’s urgent and life-threatening, once they’ve discovered it to be so, they have the capacity to act. But we’re not going to know about it until, you know, a bubbling problem becomes a crisis—something that would have been prevented if they were properly staffed.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the Fox News—how Fox News is covering the shutdown. In this clip, you hear Steve Doocy and Fox & Friends, but first Fox contributor Charlie Hurt.

CHARLES HURT: You could shut down half of the government agencies, and literally it would be years—if it were not for the media, it would be years before the regular person, the normal, average working American, would even know that the department had been shut down, in terms of, you know, how much it affects their lives.

STEVE DOOCY: A lot of people across the country don’t even notice that part of the federal government is shut down.

AMY GOODMAN: So, sort of suggesting that the government workers are not normal Americans. But, Rob Weissman, Fox using this as an argument to downsize government?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there’s sort of two strains that are coming together in this, for sure on Fox, but also in the administration. One strain is the hard-cored ideologues who actually want to shrink government. This is—it’s a business-friendly argument, but it’s even beyond business, because they’re actually impacting things that business absolutely needs to go forward. So that’s one strain. You have these hardcore people. In the government, it would be someone like chief of staff—or, the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

The other strain is people who are just stupid and ignorant, who have heard all this stuff about how the government doesn’t do anything, actually have no idea what the government actually does, and will just repeat dumb things because they’ve got no idea and they’re informed by this hardcore ideology.

I think that comment you just played is probably a mix of both those things. I think President Trump himself and most of the White House fall in both these categories. They actually don’t know. There have been a lot of reports that when they forced the shutdown, they didn’t realize, gosh, the government does a lot of stuff, there’s going to be a lot of impacts about this. You know, I think one thing that they picked up on was, they didn’t want pictures of the national parks being shut down, so they’ve left the parks open, unsafely, without staffing. But they just mostly don’t know what the government does—the government they’re in charge of running.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk about the parks in a minute.

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