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Budget-watchers hope for restorations

WASHINGTON - Indian budget-watchers in Washington consider it too early to
tell whether the usual appropriations scenario of "president low, Congress
high" will play out in the current 109th Congress.

The pattern under President George W. Bush has been for him to propose
budget cuts, and for Congress to restore the cuts to many Indian programs
while falling in line with the administration's bottom-line for the overall
budget. But more than 150 programs would be canceled under the president's
fiscal year 2006 request, which would trim domestic spending by a full
percentage point - more than at any time since the Reagan administration in
the 1980s.

Congressional rules are such that determined lawmakers - certainly any
senator - have a solid chance of saving any program near and dear to their
constituents. Last year in particular, the 2005 federal budget for Indian
country relied on the ability of lawmakers to restore funding the
administration had reduced or canceled. But this year, with so many
programs on the chopping block and the president's determination to rein
the overall budget in at a bottom line of still lower domestic spending,
behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing is apt to be more intense than last
year.

According to a good deal of commentary in Washington, the president's
budget is already in a bad way. For one thing, war costs in Afghanistan and
Iraq will soon exceed $300 billion whether accounted for in the budget or
not. And the president's Social Security privatization scheme, with its
price tag of $754 billion in transitional costs (also off-budget at this
writing), isn't wildly popular anywhere so far. Older voters are polling
strongly against it. While the president may not face re-election, early
indications are that Republican lawmakers who do are skittish about running
on the proposed budget.

So there is some reason to believe Indian funding may again transcend the
president's requests. But detailed predictions, and proposed budget
numbers, are probably futile at this time. A lot depends now on individual
lawmakers.

At a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing Feb. 16, Chairman John
McCain focused on several Indian programs proposed for budget reduction in
2006. He said the government has "continually reneged on its trust and
moral obligations" to tribes. The Arizona Republican noted that the Tribal
Priority Allocation, Indian Community Development Block Grant, and land
consolidation programs - all of primary importance - have been scaled back
considerably; but "a notable exception to this is the Office of the Special
Trustee" for trust funds, slated for hefty increases as a reflection of
reforms enforced by court rulings in the Cobell lawsuit over Individual
Indian Money accounts.

"The Cobell issue impacts everything else we do concerning Indian issues,"
McCain said, a theme that got its own hearing in the House of
Representatives an hour and a half later.

Committee Democrats, led by Vice Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and
Tim Johnson of South Dakota, criticized specific Indian budget cuts and
pledged every effort to restore them. Dorgan was particularly incensed by
the proposed curtailments in tribal college spending and several health
programs, describing tribal colleges as among the best and most hopeful
institutions on many reservations. "What on earth are these priorities
about? Who makes these priorities?"

At the same time, Dorgan acknowledged the impact of the trust reform
lawsuit on funding available for Indian affairs. "It threatens to overwhelm
all the rest of these issues. We've got to find a way to use some common
sense."

Johnson described the Indian budgeting as "an abomination ... I'm
profoundly disappointed with the president's priorities." He promised a
campaign to restore Indian funding from the budget and appropriations
committees.

But he too acknowledged the Cobell presence. "I'm concerned that OST's
funding is hemorrhaging at the expense of Indian funding ... Every aspect
of Indian funding is hurting."

Among the hardest hit at this writing are the BIA, facing a $108.2 billion
drop from fiscal year 2005 enacted funding; and Housing and Urban
Development, where Indian housing would take a $107 million hit despite
some magical numbering around the president's effort to roll the Indian
Community Development Block Grant program into the Native American Housing
Block Grant program at a combined $583 million in funding. Separately, the
two programs received $690 million in fiscal year '05.

James Berg, attending the hearing as director of Oglala Sioux Tribe
housing, said that even by working harder and smarter with maximum
efficiency for each dollar spent, housing is not a break-even proposition
on Pine Ridge under the current budget, let alone the reductions proposed
for '06. "Demand never ends," he said.

McCain revealed that the federal budgeting process is moving at "haven't
got time for the pain" speed. McCain didn't use the phrase, but he made a
point of asking that post-hearing comments be submitted for the record in
record time (the official hearing record is customarily left open for a
week) because committee views are due to the Budget Committee on Feb. 18.
On March 7, according to the current schedule, the Appropriations Committee
will decide whether to abide by administration budget caps or exceed them.