Elections 2012: GOP Platform Opens a Door

Last week’s Republican National Convention set the stage for a national debate about the role of government.

Indeed, as Indian Country Today Media Network Washington Bureau Chief Rob Capriccioso pointed out last week: The Grand Old Party has a positive American Indian platform. It says tribes, not the federal government, should be the primary vehicle to solve problems. “Republicans believe that economic self-sufficiency is the ultimate answer to the challenges confronting Indian country. We believe that tribal governments and their communities, not Washington bureaucracies, are best situated to craft solutions that will end systemic problems that create poverty and disenfranchisement,” the document says.

But federal Indian policy is more complicated than a simple resolution.

In his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney said his administration would put the government on track to a balanced budget. He wasn’t specific about how he would do that, but his running mate, Paul Ryan, has said he would limit all government spending to 20 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

What would that look like in terms of numbers?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), including dollars that are contracted by tribal governments, would spend anywhere from $125 million less each year to $550 million.

To be fair: Republicans in the House have done a good job of protecting both the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the BIA from drastic cuts. But the next cycle is bound to produce deeper cuts because the dollars needed for a balanced budget would be greater in a Romney/Ryan administration. And, on top of that, many of the coming budget cuts will be automatic (unless that impossible-to-find consensus is found on where to cut).

The impact on the Indian Health system would be significant as well. Tribal and non-profit clinics and hospitals are improving third-party collections, mostly money from Medicaid. The Ryan budget would both cut Medicaid and make it a block grant program controlled by states. (Medicaid is a state and federal partnership for health insurance for low-income citizens as well as long term care for the elderly who cannot afford it).

Perhaps that’s where the Republican platform could enter the fray. The party calls for more authority for tribal governments. It said: “Better partnerships will help us to expand opportunity, deliver top-flight education to future generations, modernize and improve the Indian Health Service to make it more responsive to local needs, and build essential infrastructure.” That idea could open a door to tribes directly participating in Medicaid by tribal governments and, perhaps, the opportunity to shape those programs and funding sources without state participation. After all, as the platform says, “Ineffective government programs deprive Indians of the services they need, and long-term failures threaten to undermine tribal sovereignty itself.”

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.