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by Andrew Kreig
Madeline Drexler, a journalist seeking improved food safety for the public, has recently achieved a rare trifecta of accomplishments. She published a major article in field, then promptly obtained Washington reform -- and is now winning well-deserved recognition. The Society of Professional Journalist bestows its annual public service award for magazine writing on her in a ceremony July 20 at the National Press Club.
Jason Peuquet, research director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, is another reformer with a big goal. He and his group launched a major effort this week, also at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to enact a plan now that would gradually put debt on a downward path as a share of the economy.
Each will be my guest July 19 beginning at noon (EDT) on MTL Washington Update with co-host and producer Scott Draughon. We examine the substance of their goals -- and the complex Washington process of accomplishing reform in an era of gridlock in Congress. The process is complicated by an ever-growing lobbying industry that threatens to overwhelm even sensible reform. Click here to listen to the show, which may be heard live nationwide and then by archive. Listener questions are welcome.
Drexler is the editor of Harvard Public Health magazine and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, where I am a fellow also. She won the public service award for her article, "Why Your Food Isn't Safe," published by Good Housekeeping last fall. The reporting was so powerful that it prompted reforms the same week it was published. The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared all “Big Six” strains of deadly E. coli bacteria “adulterants” — a move she and Good Housekeeping strongly recommended.
This means, she says, that starting this year certain food producers (such as those working with beef) will have to test for these strains and, if they are found, destroy the batch or cook it to kill the bacteria. Previously, people had to fall ill — even die — before the contaminated food was tracked down.) She'll provide a progress report on how the federal government is progressing on its plan, and will amplify on the scope of the problem.
Each year, she reported, contaminated food sends 128,000 victims to the hospital, and it kills 3,000 children and adults. The article described how the government safety net failed those victims — and how those in the public can protect their families.
"More than 17 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is spent on health care --- in many cases, for conditions that could be prevented or better managed with public health interventions," she points out. "But only 3 percent of the government’s health budget is spent on public health measures -- and public health programs are usually the first to be cut in a budget crisis."
In pointing out such problems, Drexler draws on extensive experience as a leading science and public health journalist.
Her book, Emerging Epidemics: The Menace of New Infections, (Penguin, 2010) is an update -- with new material on SARS, H1N1 influenza, and innovative approaches to global pandemic preparedness -- to her 2003 book, Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections (Penguin). Both books have received wide critical praise. Drexler’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, among many other national publications.
We expect our discussion also to cover the nature of "reform" these days in an era when almost any initiative creates opponents, often well-funded and articulate in their opposition. These days Congress is heavily focused on cost-cutting in domestic safety-net programs. Food inspection programs are often under threat. Drexler argues that cuts are false economy and the nation can well afford to focus on food safety when an estimated 48 million people a year undergo at least one incident of food poisoning, despite reasonable precautions by many of the victims.
Jason Peuquet, our other guest, approaches reform from a big picture standpoint. His organization is part of the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation, which sponsored a high-profile press conference that garnered lots of news coverage this week for the launch of its campaign. "At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013," his group argues in its policy paper, "several policies are set to take effect that would reduce deficits and debt, but in untargeted and abrupt ways. At the same time, lawmakers much not extend these policies without offsets. A smart and gradual debt reduction plan can be the solution."
At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, many major-scale events are set to occur all at once. They include the expiration of the 2001/03/10 tax cuts, the winding down of certain jobs provisions, the activation of the $1.2 trillion across-the-board “sequester,” an immediate and steep reduction in Medicare physician payments, the end of current Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patches, and the need to once again raise the country’s debt ceiling. At the end of 2012, we face what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls a "fiscal cliff.”
Taken together, these policies would reduce ten-year decits by over $6.8 trillion relative to realistic current policy projections – enough to put the debt on a sharp downward path but in an extremely disruptive and unwise manner. Gradually phasing in well- thought-out entitlement and tax reforms would be far preferable to large, blunt,and abrupt savings upfront. Policies set to take effect at the end of the year could seriously harm the short-term economy without making the changes necessary to address the drivers of our debt or strengthen the economy over the long-term.
However, the worst-case scenario would be for lawmakers to repeal the sequester and once again extend expiring debt-expanding policies without offsetting their costs. If policymakers were to walk away from this potentially action-forcing moment to help them put the country’s debt on a sustainable path, it could lead to a loss of confidence in their ability to govern that could set off a dangerous chain reaction in markets.
Peuquet works on a wide array of budgetary issues and conducts research on budget and economic policy. For instance, he has recently worked on examining the economic recovery, defense and non-defense spending, structural health care reforms, as well as the overall federal budget. Peuquet graduated from George Washington University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics and international affairs.
We welcome listener questions for our guests. Call (866) 685-7469 or email email@example.com. The show is part of our weekly public affairs series that just began its seventh year, distributed nationally via the My Technology Lawyer network. Visit the archives for previous interviews with top authors, political leaders and other news-makers.
In related news, Rebekah Cowell, another of my Schuster Institute colleagues, is an additional national award-winner in the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) competition. Based in North Carolina, Cowell collaborates with the Independent Weekly on investigative projects involving environmental injustice in African-American communities across the Southeast. Her award in the category of non-daily newspapers was for a three-part series, listed below, identifying hazards for those at health risk because they live near garbage landfills. A complete list is here of the SPJ award-winners to be honored later this week.
:: photo courtesy of 401(K)2012, via Creative Commons license ::
Andrew Kreig is a Washington-based non-profit executive, attorney and investigative reporter who directs the non-partisan Justice Integrity Project, a legal reform group.