Enforcement: The Untapped Resource

Cracking down on corporate wrongdoers is smart populist politics—and can be sold to the deficit hawks as well.

By Eleanor Eagan Hannah Story Brown

Tagged budgetDepartment of JusticeenforcementSecurities and Exchange Commission

After months of deadly stasis, with the surprise announcement of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Democratic fortunes have abruptly shifted. Though the country is still roiling with overlapping crises—rising rents and homelessness, compounding ecological emergencies, the loss of a federal right to abortion and the looming threat of the extremist Supreme Court—it no longer feels true that Democrats can’t get anything done. With the midterms just months away, now is the time for Biden and Congressional Democrats to seize the winds of change, and re-write their anticipated legacies.

The Inflation Reduction Act provides an unexpected blueprint for how to successfully secure all 50 Democrats’ votes in the Senate (the clue is in the name). But the bill is no panacea, and should be just the beginning, not the end, of a Herculean push to address people’s unmet needs. In at least one area, clinching votes from Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema need not mean sacrificing on core values.

This opportunity flows from a key, underexplored insight: At many agencies, enforcing the law against corporate wrongdoers is a money-making proposition for the federal government. An agreement to increase funding to these agencies would plausibly reduce the deficit and pave the way for a popular effort to counter the corporate crime spree that has been ravaging our society for decades.

To reach such a deal, however, agencies’ deficit-reducing properties need to be better advertised. Deficit reduction as a goal may rightly be anathema to progressive Democrats. But they should not hesitate to embrace it here as a means to eke a consequential win out of seemingly impossible circumstances and open a new terrain of political possibilities over the long-run.

Lessons from the Surprisingly Lovable IRS

Florida GOP Senator Rick Scott claims he has a “plan to rescue America,” and it involves—among a slew of eye-popping proposals—cutting the Internal Revenue Service’s budget by 50 percent. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The GOP has long made it its mission to starve the federal government of resources (excepting, of course, its gun-slinging wings). And make no mistake, since Scott is chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, his 11-point plan is the closest thing the American public has seen to a governing agenda from Republicans this cycle.

The IRS budget, in particular, has been a consistent target of Republicans’ cost-cutting fervor. In the 1990s, conservatives went so far as to advocate abolishing the agency altogether. Unable to make that happen, they settled for the next best option: death by a million cuts. As ProPublica’s Paul Kiel and Jesse Eisinger explain in their narrative-defining article, “How the IRS Was Gutted,” the result has been “a bureaucracy on life support and tens of billions in lost government revenue.” The impact has been even more pronounced at higher income levels and among corporations.

If the conservative consensus on the IRS has hardly changed, however, Democrats’ approach to the embattled institution has recently undergone a marked transformation. It wasn’t too long ago that the IRS was convincingly described as “an agency that doesn’t have any friends.” Democrats didn’t necessarily support the GOP’s budget cuts but, as Kiel and Eisinger write, they “fear[ed] publicly supporting the taxman,” creating “a structural political problem” for the agency.

Fast forward to late February of this year, when Rick Scott first released his plan, and it’s clear that the terrain has shifted. Democratic lawmakers didn’t hesitate to blast the proposal, with Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett describing it as “outrageous.” Nor have they limited themselves to fighting rhetorical battles on the agency’s behalf; just weeks after Scott’s plan was released, Democrats successfully passed a government funding agreement that hiked the IRS’ budget by 5.6 percent, the largest funding increase it has seen since 2001.

Now the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is poised to direct $45.6 billion to IRS enforcement efforts, an investment that would help ensure the agency has the resources it needs to take on the ultra-wealthy and corporate tax cheats. The bill explicitly treats IRS enforcement as deficit-reducing, and secured Manchin’s blessing accordingly. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that the $80 billion in new IRS funding will be offset by a revenue increase of $125 billion by 2031, and $250 billion by 2042.

As always, it is important to put big numbers like these new budget figures into context. Accounting for inflation, they appear somewhat more modest; approximately 8 percent over what the agency’s budget would have been had it grown in line with inflation since 2010. After over a decade of severe underinvestment, more may still be needed. Nonetheless, this is undoubtedly a significant down payment towards a fairer tax system.

How is it that an agency that was so recently radioactive has become a favorite child of Democrats? Well, as it turns out, the IRS is an easy agency to love thanks to two key characteristics. First, when properly funded, the IRS acts as a powerful counterweight to lawbreaking by the ultrawealthy and corporations, which in the case of tax evasion and avoidance robs the public of hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Time and time again, polling has shown that the need to hold these powerful actors accountable is among the few policies that practically every constituent, Democrat and Republican and independent, can agree on.

When properly funded, the IRS acts as a powerful counterweight to lawbreaking by the ultrawealthy and corporations.

Second, funding the IRS brings in significantly more money than it costs. Although there is debate about the exact order of magnitude of this return on investment—with estimates ranging anywhere from three to six times—there is widespread agreement that it is positive and large.

None of these things are new. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that Democrats, led by figures like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, using presidential primary runs to argue forcefully for more IRS funding on these terms, began emphasizing them. Today, IRS funding appears to be one of just a few areas of meaningful and productive consensus between the party’s left and right flanks.

How Corporate Accountability Can Bring Down the Deficit

It would be easy to dismiss this as a unique circumstance. But it’s not.

In one respect, this is obvious. Many other agencies—whether tasked with enforcing workplace safety, securities law, pollution standards, or any of the other hard-won safeguards of the last century—have the means to deliver a dose of the corporate accountability that the public has been screaming for. Increasing funding for these government outposts would enable action that is overwhelmingly popular and materially meaningful.

Few, however, appear to be aware of the second shared characteristic: Several other agencies’ enforcement wings bring in more in fines to the federal Treasury each year than they cost. And there’s little reason to think that the balance would flip if they were to grow. In other words, hiking these agencies’ budgets for enforcement would almost certainly reduce the deficit, clearing a roadblock that has countless other Democratic proposals stalled out.

It’s no mystery why this fact has gone unnoticed. As far as we’re aware, and incredible as it may seem, there has been no systematic effort to measure the returns from federal enforcement activity. Although agencies report on the results of enforcement actions at least annually, few contextualize them against the costs of those activities.

Fine collection also explicitly does not factor into the official estimates used to assess how new legislation will affect the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office is barred from considering the secondary effects of enforcement activity, which includes the fines it generates. As Scott Levy explored in The Yale Law Journal, this produces a topsy-turvy result wherein actions that CBO knows will actually reduce the deficit (i.e. increasing agencies’ budgets for enforcement) are shown as increasing it, and actions that would increase the deficit (i.e. cutting funding for enforcement activity) are officially shown as reducing it.

Generating precise figures to fill this analytical gap would be no small endeavor. What is on its face a relatively simple calculation (fine revenue minus the cost of procuring it) contains a considerable degree of complexity when you drill down into the details. On the revenue side of the ledger, you must contend with the fact that agencies’ reported penalty totals for each year don’t always break out fines from other penalties like restitution or disgorgement, which, while important in their own right, don’t directly reduce the deficit, because money is sent to victims rather than the federal treasury. On the cost side, meanwhile, determining what counts as an enforcement cost is not entirely straightforward. Divisions beyond an agency’s enforcement wing may support enforcement action in ways that are difficult to quantify and likely vary significantly on a case-by-case and agency-by-agency basis. Interagency collaboration can make it even harder to accurately account for and attribute the costs and gains from enforcement.

We lack the resources or information necessary to conduct such an analysis. But even as we recognize their constraints, we believe that rough estimates, using publicly available information, can stand in as a reasonable proxy. And a simple comparison between the money spent on enforcement at many agencies and the fines that that enforcement generates reveals that many are already working in service of Joe Manchin’s stated priority: bringing down the deficit.

Consider the Federal Trade Commission. In 2019, the agency received a total of $38 million in funding for enforcement in its Competition and Consumer Protection divisions. That year, the agency collected just under $144 million in civil penalties. That works out to almost four dollars returned to the Treasury for every one dollar spent. Those figures do vary, ranging from a low of $7 million in 2018 to a high of just over $5 billion in 2020, thanks to a record setting fine levied against Facebook. (Note that that fine covers the budget for the entire Federal Trade Commission agency for approximately 12 years. What’s more, there was widespread agreement that, for a company of Facebook’s size, even that eye-popping figure was in fact tiny for a company of Facebook’s size and would fail to have any deterrent effect against future privacy violations, leading many to call for even larger penalties against Facebook and similarly-sized violators.)

Enforcement spending at the Securities and Exchange Commission also more than pays for itself. In 2021, the SEC’s enforcement division had a budget of $622 million, which it used to collect $1.6 billion in penalties, or almost three times the initial investment. The Environmental Protection Agency, for its part, leveraged $484 million in enforcement funding to secure $1.05 billion in penalties in 2021. That is about two dollars for every dollar spent. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission doesn’t systematically break down its reported fine totals into penalties and disgorgement payments, but we know that in 2020, just one of the civil penalties it imposed more than covered the budget for not just the enforcement division, but the entire agency.

These back-of-the-envelope calculations may not be as accurate for all agencies. The Department of Justice (DOJ), for example, often works closely with other federal agencies when developing and trying cases, making it difficult to accurately and equitably attribute the gains from enforcement activities. Nonetheless, a rudimentary comparison reveals a return on corporate enforcement so many times the initial budgetary investment for key Justice Department divisions that we feel confident that a more exacting analysis would reveal that funding the DOJ Antitrust, Civil, and Environment and Natural Resources (ENRD) Divisions, among others, brings in more than they cost.

The DOJ Antitrust Division, for instance, has collected an average of $724 million in criminal penalties per year since 2012. That is close to four times the budget that Congress appropriated for the Division in 2021. At ENRD, the return is even more magnified. In 2021, the division had $113.5 million to support its operations. That year, it collected over $1 billion in civil penalties. That is approximately nine times the initial investment. We were not able to find reporting on the DOJ Civil Division’s civil penalty collections, disaggregated from other types of fines. However, the Division reports that its fine collection in 2021 from False Claims Act enforcement actions alone totaled $5.6 billion, or more than 17 times its appropriated budget for that year.

This should, by no means, be considered a comprehensive list. But these selected examples do make clear that the IRS is not alone; across many different policy areas, enforcing the law against corporate miscreants is a budget augmenting proposition for the federal government.

The fiscal case is, of course, just one of many reasons to support a crackdown on corporate criminality. This agenda is, for one thing, wildly popular; in polling that we conducted with Data for Progress, we found that “increasing funding for federal investigations into corporate lawbreaking was backed by a +49-point margin of support.” This was a bipartisan result. “70 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Independents, and 70 percent of Democrats surveyed believe the Biden administration should do more to hold lawbreaking corporations accountable.”

Across many different policy areas, enforcing the law against corporate miscreants is a budget augmenting proposition for the federal government.

Beyond that cold political calculation, there is also a strong principled case to be made that greater corporate accountability is necessary to reinstill faith in equal justice under the law.

Yet, we have ample evidence to suggest that arguments resting on popularity or principle alone are rarely enough to sway the likes of Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema. And while neither has admittedly proven a particularly good faith negotiator, both senators have consistently made at least one thing clear: they want to cut the deficit. To win over these stubborn gatekeepers, those who support funding a corporate crackdown should not shy away from making their case in language that the senators will understand: Increasing enforcement budgets is the fiscally responsible choice.

Countering Myths and Misconceptions

This fiscal case for enforcement will no doubt be met with both good and bad faith opposition. Some of these arguments will follow a familiar script. We can anticipate, for example, that corporations will loudly oppose any effort to increase either the frequency or severity of enforcement actions against corporate offenders. Indeed, this summer the Chamber of Commerce ran a series of ads attacking the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Rohit Chopra, for vigorously and vociferously enforcing the law.

These entities and their representatives will deploy the same arguments that they use to push back against new and existing regulations: Enforcement will impede innovation and harm competitiveness. Despite the frequency with which they’ve been repeated over the last several decades, there is little to no evidence to support these assertions. What’s more, the very premise is begging to be attacked. Corporations that are able to innovate or compete only by circumventing the law, i.e. seizing an unfair advantage, are unlikely to find favor with the public.

Other opposing arguments warrant more respectful engagement. Some may worry, for example, that politicizing the returns from corporate enforcement activities could distort agencies’ or lawmakers’ incentives when it comes to enforcement and funding priorities. There is ample evidence to indicate that such distortions occur at the local level, where a reliance on fine revenue has been linked to many negative outcomes, including increased racial disparities in policing.

Granted, the cases are not perfectly analogous. For one, fine-driven enforcement at the local level depends in significant part on its targets’ inability to contest wrongful penalties; corporations, who retain enormous legal talent, face little risk of being similarly denied due process. Nonetheless, if federal agencies were to depend directly on the proceeds from civil penalty collections to operate, it is not hard to imagine how this could influence enforcement decisions. For example, enforcers could feel pressure to take easy cases, not necessarily the most meritorious ones, so as to ensure that their work results in a penalty award. But that is a big “if.” As it stands, most agencies do not keep the proceeds from their enforcement activities. Those funds are, instead, sent to the Treasury for Congress to distribute in its annual appropriations process. This significantly reduces the likelihood that funding considerations distort agency enforcement decisions.

Some might also worry that the pursuit of deficit reduction through enforcement could displace other important considerations and goals for government funding. Congress might, for example, choose to fund cost-saving agencies at the expense of critical programs that don’t pay for themselves. Even within the universe of agencies whose enforcement activities more than cover their costs, congressional appropriations could come to favor agency enforcement that produces the largest returns, regardless of other legitimate aims.

These concerns might be better placed if the pursuit of deficit reduction was not already a driving force grossly distorting political outcomes. In this context, ignorance of corporate enforcement’s deficit-reducing potential has hardly led to adequate and equitable investments in shared priorities. Instead, the status quo has been austerity for (almost) all. (As always, the security state represents a notable exception.) Touting enforcement’s profitability might, at the very least, allow a handful of agencies to escape this cost-cutting logic which, on net, seems better than the alternative. And, if increases are enacted, the cost savings associated with enforcement, and the fiscal space it would provide, should only make arguing for more robust funding in other areas easier, not harder.

Some skeptics may question the very premise of our argument that increased enforcement funding will more than pay for itself. Yes, many enforcers currently collect enough to offset their costs; but will that remain true over the long-term? Won’t larger enforcement teams quickly run out of cases with which to fund their salaries? This worry is logical on its face but, in actual fact, it vastly overestimates corporations’ compliance with the law and current rates of corporate crime detection. In a review of existing research on corporations’ compliance with EPA regulations, Cynthia Giles, the former assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, finds compelling evidence that noncompliance is ubiquitous. She writes, “Significant violations occur at 25% or more of facilities in nearly all programs for which there is compliance data.” And, “for many programs with the biggest impact on health, serious noncompliance is much worse than that. Significant violation rates of 50% to 70% are not unusual.” There’s little reason to believe the compliance picture is meaningfully different in other areas. In short, agencies are at no plausible risk of running out of cases to pursue.

Still others may oppose emphasizing this dimension of enforcement because it could lead agencies to favor penalty collections over other enforcement tools. Civil penalties have most often been conceptualized as a means to deter future misbehavior by raising the potential costs of noncompliance. Evidence on the effectiveness of this approach, however, is mixed. Many have theorized that penalties would have to be set exceptionally high, many orders of magnitude above what is common today, to achieve this effect. This has led to suggestions that agencies should avoid relying on fines alone. Indeed, when paired with other enforcement tools, like restitution, criminal charges, and corporate restructuring, the deterrent power of fines may increase.

But even if not, we believe that there is a strong, principled case for deploying penalties extensively, alongside other strategies. Corporate criminality imposes heavy costs on society writ large. Enforcement actions frequently acknowledge and demand restitution for the portions of these costs that are most easily measured. Victims of wage theft, for instance, may receive back pay. Corporations found guilty of polluting waterways may be forced to foot the bill for clean-up. But these direct costs are far from the only ones. To give just one example, victims of corporate crime may be forced to rely more heavily on the social safety net programs we collectively support. Thought of this way, penalties help rebalance the scales.

The final counterargument is one that we take very seriously: Why, many will no doubt wonder, adopt a line of argument that could validate deficit hawks’ dangerous reasoning at all? Put simply, we believe the potential rewards are worth the risks. The sad reality is that, for as long as Manchin and Sinema are deciding votes, legislative action will require some uncomfortable compromises. This may be among the least compromising on the table; we do not anticipate that emphasizing the deficit-reducing characteristics of corporate enforcement is likely to meaningfully contribute to the long-term hold of broader arguments for deficit reduction. The underlying policy, moreover, is directly in line with progressive priorities.

But for progressives, making this argument need not only be a matter of pinching their nose to swallow a bitter medicine. Drawing public attention to the most immediate benefits from corporate criminal enforcement creates a natural stepping stone toward something even better: a more rigorous understanding of the myriad ways that corporate accountability supports our collective prosperity.

Other Costs of the Government’s Incomplete Accounting

It’s clear by now that the revenue that enforcement brings in through fines and penalties has been systematically overlooked, and that focusing on how the financial benefits of enforcement exceed its costs could sway moderate Democrats to the side of more enforcement spending. But when you broaden the lens to look at the value of enforcement’s associated benefits beyond fines, the “savings” of enforcement—monetary and otherwise—grow exponentially.

Most often, the conversation about executive agencies failing to consider unquantified or unquantifiable benefits is focused on the specific type of cost-benefit analysis used to assess proposed regulation. Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Office Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been empowered to review agencies’ proposed rules through the lens of a specific kind of cost-benefit analysis.

This analysis aims to find the “economically optimal” regulation—which sounds good, but in practice routinely excludes some of the most important and persuasive reasons for regulating. What may sound like a hopelessly droll administrative process also happens to be a real barrier to creating a more equitable America. OIRA has for decades now served as a bottleneck for agency rulemaking, rubber-stamping or rejecting rules on the basis of cost-benefit analysis.

Enforcement, thankfully, is not routinely subject to this painfully limited kind of analysis; there is some general recognition of the fact that the benefits of enforcement can’t be fully monetized or structured to meet pre-set outcomes. One of the core justifications for enforcement is its deterrent effect, which is recognized as both important and impossible to fully measure. (Though one recent study, which measured the increase in pollution at Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites after Trump’s EPA announced that it would temporarily stop enforcing environmental standards during the pandemic, made the effect fleetingly visible in absentia. The study found an average 13 percent increase in pollution after the EPA halted enforcement in counties with more TRI sites, associated with a 38.8 percent increase in COVID-19 cases and a 19.1 percent increase in COVID-19 deaths.)

The intended deterrent effect of enforcement is not only to discourage violators from re-offending, but to prove to would-be offenders that the costs of lawbreaking outweigh its benefits. Unfortunately, as we’ve gestured to, for the largest corporate violators, the economic benefits of lawbreaking too often outweigh the economic costs of being caught. Along with the argument that enforcement pays for itself, another baseline argument for increased enforcement funding is that too-weak enforcement fails to meet its basic mandate of de-incentivizing violations.

Along with the limits of the regulation they enforce, enforcers are subject to shrinking agency budgets. Both new rulemaking and agency funding are increasingly constrained by government economists’ practiced blindness to not only the fullest picture of monetary costs and benefits, but the democratic principles that should be the backbone and basis of government function.

Though regulatory enforcement is less contingent than regulatory analysis on the distortions of cost-benefit analysis, they share some serious equity problems. Georgetown University Law Professor Lisa Heinzerling has written about how cost-benefit analysis devalues the future over the present, applying a “discount rate” to the value of a future life over a present one. It also bakes the current unequal distribution of wealth and resources into its baseline, perpetuating that inequality. Heinzerling wrote that cost-benefit analysis is “willfully blind to the maldistribution of society’s resources and the historical injustices that underwrite this maldistribution.”

Enforcement has not only been blind to that maldistribution—it has at times reinforced it. Recent studies on environmental enforcement, for instance, have found “meaningful disparities” in the quality of enforcement along race and income lines, highlighting “government behavior as a contributor to ongoing inequities.” The Justice Department’s 2022 “Comprehensive Environmental Justice Enforcement Strategy” implicitly acknowledges how environmental enforcement has failed in the past to advance greater equity, and affirms that enforcement of existing laws can be used strategically to protect and assist the most vulnerable communities. (But the agencies responsible for their enforcement need funding to do so.)

Polling by the Center for Progressive Reform and Data for Progress in 2021 found that a majority of voters across the political spectrum reject maximizing economic growth as the primary factor in regulatory decision-making. For example, when asked to choose between two statements: “We should ensure that we have clean drinking water even if it means that economic growth may at times be slowed,” or, “We must prioritize economic growth even if that means Americans drink dirtier water,” 87 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Independents, and 70 percent of Republicans agreed with the former. This means that a supermajority of Americans opposes the way the government currently evaluates proposed regulation.

Democrats should talk up enforcement’s deficit-reducing capacity to get in the door. But from there, the fullest justification for more robust enforcement would take into account the pitfalls of purely monetary analysis, particularly as it is most commonly practiced in the executive branch, because regulation and its enforcement ideally share the same end: protecting the public from harm. Ultimately, any argument about value that skirts democratic ideals in favor of theoretical economic ideals will fall short and fail to win over the public’s imagination.

What is the monetary value of a life? A death? The risk of death? What about the loss of an entire species? Of a child not developing asthma? Of their parent not developing cancer? What is theeconomically optimal” number of prison rapes, polluted rivers, premature deaths, species-wide extinctions? The answer to that last one is not zero, and that should give you pause. These are fundamental questions of how we want to live together that should be answered democratically. Instead, they are answered for us by economists.

There are names for some of the kinds of benefits missing from these analyses. One is co-benefits, or multi-benefits, which are routinely brought up in the context of climate policy. Regulations aimed at cracking down on greenhouse gas pollution, for example, typically provide cross-cutting co-benefits beyond air quality like improved health and life expectancy, increased employment and agricultural yield, and so on. Co-benefits account for why the Clean Air Act was estimated to save Americans between $6 trillion and $50 trillion in its first two decades—and that’s only the benefits to humans and the environment “which could be expressed in dollar terms,” the EPA acknowledges. (You can’t really quantify things like the joy people in Punjab experienced when pandemic lockdowns improved the air quality so much that the Himalayan mountains were visible for the first time in 30 years.)

And then there are non-use values, which really test the limits of purely monetary analysis. There’s the “bequest value” of something being inheritable by future generations; hence the grief of American parents who realize the Yellowstone their children visit will be radically different than it was during their childhoods. There’s “existence value,” or the value of knowing something unavailable to you—say elephants, Antarctica, other people’s happy children—exists. How do you quantify that?

If we took the existential emergency of climate change seriously, wouldn’t that incline all reasonable economic analyses decisively toward the conclusion that “any dollar amount is justified to prevent the loss of everything”? Particularly when we already know that climate inaction could cost the U.S. government $2 trillion a year by the end of the century, according to the highly incomplete metrics of OMB itself?

When we talk about the value of enforcement, and how even a slightly more adroit economic analysis would make it clear that funding enforcement is deficit-reducing, this austerity-friendly argument should only be a jumping off point to get moderates on board with immediate funding increases for important, chronically underfunded enforcement programs. What should come next is a freer, more thoughtful conversation about the point of the administrative state, and the role that the government should play in people’s lives.

Agencies must be better advocates for themselves to the President and to Congress, as they are the ones who determine agency budgets. The argument about enforcement as deficit-reducing needs to be made at that level. (The FTC’s financial reports, which report consumer savings per dollar spent by year, provide a good model for this.) But Democrats of all stripes in Congress should also take a new tack in rallying their colleagues—and awakening the American public—to the cause of making the administrative state a more robust, empowered advocate for the public interest. Be specific. Use numbers. And then use meaningful, human examples that go beyond numbers. (Like this 2015 Reuters article about children killed by cars backing over them after OIRA spent years delaying implementation of a Bush-era rearview camera rule.)

When it comes to making appeals about enforcement to the public, the problem arises that the government’s most well-known, well-funded enforcers are not those enforcing labor laws, returning stolen wages to workers, or protecting organizing employees from illegal union-busting tactics; they’re not those enforcing environmental laws or investigating industrial plants in neighborhoods with high levels of cancer. “Federal law enforcement” in the American imagination means the security state: Border Patrol, the FBI, the Secret Service. Federal spending backs up that impression; immigration enforcement receives more than ten times as much funding as labor standards enforcement.

Meanwhile, corporations are the Big Brother in most Americans’ daily lives more often than the federal government. “Big government” stokes greater fear than “big corporations” not only because corporations are way better at marketing, but because the government’s message—which should be about serving the public interest—is in reality decidedly mixed. To undercut public skepticism of the government’s role in their lives, messaging won’t be enough; there needs to be a demonstrable shift in priorities toward holding the most powerful to account.

Chronic underfunding means that the agencies with the most laudable missions—the ones seeking to protect ordinary Americans from profit-driven exploitation—often struggle to go up against powerful corporate interests. Strengthening funding for enforcement to protect Americans from environmental, health, consumer, and labor standards violations is an existing, easily justifiable tool for changing that balance of power.

Read more about budgetDepartment of JusticeenforcementSecurities and Exchange Commission

Eleanor Eagan is a senior fellow at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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Hannah Story Brown is a researcher at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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