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Congress and the Budget of Meh

The adjective of the day is “modest.” That’s the standard phrase to describe the $1.012 trillion spending bill for a federal fiscal year.
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The adjective of the day is “modest.” That’s the standard phrase to describe the $1.012 trillion spending bill for a federal fiscal year that has less than nine months left. The bill gives modest relief from the sequester. There are tiny (I can’t bring myself to say “modest” even in jest) increases in some federal programs, including the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and it puts off the fight over the size and nature of government until another day.

This is the Budget of Meh. It better reflects a broken governance structure than it does true spending priorities. Neither the right, those who want to shrink government, nor those of us who want the government to invest in key program areas can claim victory. Meh.

This budget reflects a continuing trend of austerity. The federal government is shrinking. Sort of. And austerity rules.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, took credit for this idea in his news release about the compromise spending plan. “The Omnibus will fulfill the basic duty of Congress; it provides funding for every aspect of the federal government, from our national defense, to our transportation systems, to the education of our kids,” Rogers said. “The bill reflects careful decisions to realign the nation’s funding priorities and target precious tax dollars to important programs where they are needed the most. At the same time, the legislation will continue the downward trend in federal spending to put our nation on a sustainable fiscal path.”

But Rogers’ line of thinking is misleading. This huge, 1,500-plus page spending bill, only covers federal dollars that are appropriated, about one-third of the budget. This is the budget that’s shrinking, while two-thirds of the budget continues untouched on an automatic pilot, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance and, I hope, money that is pumped into the Indian health system through the Affordable Care Act.

So for Indian country the appropriations process is broken beyond repair; business as usual is no more. The federal programs that have served Indian country well are essentially continuing to shrink. The Omnibus budget, for example, shows an increase of $18 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Eighteen million! Wow. In percentage terms that’s less than one percent. The IHS increase is under 2 percent.

If that sounds modest, consider that the amount includes a one percent raise for federal employees as well as services for a growing population. The population increase for Indian country last year was about 1.5 percent (about twice the rate of the general U.S. population.) The case is clear that we, as a country, should be investing in younger American Indians and Alaska Natives. This is the time to create opportunity, both in terms of education and jobs. Instead all we can muster is that collective “meh.”

This trend will not change unless Congress changes. Radically. The idea driving austerity is bipartisan in nature. And, even though the problem with federal spending has very little to do with annual appropriations, that’s where the action has been. We could zero out this side of the budget and there would still be a long-term spending problem.

But for Indian country there is opportunity in this budget. We must add as many Indian health dollars as possible to the entitlement category. To make that happen, there needs to be a much stronger campaign to educate American Indians and Alaska Natives about the disaster that is appropriations – and show how and why the Affordable Care Act is the alternative. Signing people up for health insurance of any kind is Indian country’s patriotic act because it defies those who would cut us into oblivion.

In its budget justification to Congress, the Indian Health Service projected a modest (there’s that word again) increase in third-party billing, Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance. The total is just over a billion dollars. What if that number doubled? That’s a billion dollars that does not have to be appropriated by Congress. A billion dollars to actually invest in a healthier Indian country. That’s a billion dollars that won’t be reversed by dwindling appropriations.

Or we can stick with budgets of meh.

Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Comment on Facebook at: