Elections 2012: Deeply Destructive Budget Wasn’t Intended to Be Implemented

Sequester is a funny word. As a noun it means a general cut in government spending. As a verb it means to hide away.

There are a lot of politicians from both parties who’d be quite content hiding away somewhere until this whole mess is resolved.

But the word has another meaning to people who rely on federal spending because it’s proof in the inability of Congress and President Barack Obama to find enough common ground to even begin to address the fiscal challenges of the United States. The whole idea of sequestration – the frightening premise – was to come up with a spending scenario that was so bad that no one would want it. Democrats would hate to see their favorite projects hit squarely with a blunt instrument. And, Republicans have similar worries over an equal amount of cuts for the Department of Defense.

The law that requires a sharp cut in federal spending is ugly government. It declares nearly every discretionary program the same, good or bad, subject to an across-the-board reduction of nearly 9 percent. And even now, when the impact is starting to be projected in real terms, Republicans and Democrats remain as divided as ever.

“As the Administration has made clear, no amount of planning can mitigate the effect of these cuts,” the Office of Management and Budget said in its sequestration report released last week. “Sequestration is a blunt and indiscriminate instrument. It is not the responsible way for our Nation to achieve deficit reduction.”

OMB says the law was never intended to be implemented.

But now what does this blunt instrument look like for programs that benefit American Indians and Alaska Natives? Well, as the president said, irresponsible.

Most of the Indian Health Service – already underfunded – would take a nearly 9 percent hit. As the National Indian Health Board posted on its web page over the weekend, these cuts are “quite different from what many originally understood and reported.” The original story was that IHS would be protected as a Medicare provider, limiting the cuts to 2 percent.

But as the OMB report says that most of the agency is discretionary and “fully sequestrable under a Joint Committee sequestration.”

“This means that nearly the entire Indian Health Service’s budget is subject to an 8.2 percent cut,” says the National Indian Health Board, “and the total estimated automatic cut to the IHS budget is $356 million in Fiscal Year 2013.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Guaranteed Loan Program, Bureau of Indian Education, public housing programs, federal trust programs, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and on and on, are all subject to the automatic spending cuts, millions of dollars that must quickly be cut.

The framework for these budget cuts is detailed account by account in the OMB document. But we don’t know many of the details. For example how does the BIA trim $194 million this year without cuts to personnel, meaning layoffs, or without cuts to self-government or self-determination contracts with tribes?

The hope now is that Congress, probably after the election, at the last possible second, will find a way to reverse itself and stop these cuts.

“On the nondefense side, sequestration would undermine investments vital to economic growth, threaten the safety and security of the American people, and cause severe harm to programs that benefit the middle-class, seniors, and children,” the OMB says in its report. “Education grants to states and local school districts supporting smaller classes, after school programs, and children with disabilities would suffer.”

The health care industry alone predicts sequestration could result in job losses of around a half million people. “Hospitals would bear the largest share of the cuts,” reports Kaiser Health News. “The Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would be reduced by about $5.8 billion, while the National Institutes of Health would see a $2.5 billion reduction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would face cuts of $490 million, and the Food and Drug administration would see reductions of about $318 million.” Kaiser Health News says the National Institutes of Health would “halt or curtail” scientific research including on-going projects involving cancer or childhood diseases.

The conservative Heritage Foundation says Defense cuts under sequestration would “jeopardize the U.S. military’s ability to defend the nation.” On the other hand Heritage says “entitlement spending – the biggest part of the budget – would scarcely be touched by comparison.”

One candidate for president has made it his mission to not be specific about what federal programs to cut and by how much. The sequestration law didn’t give President Obama that option. The numbers are now transparent and a part of the political debate.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.