From Ballots to Policy: Budget Cuts Will Be Here Soon

The federal budget is complicated — and the politics of that budget is even worse. But we know that spending cuts are ahead.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

The federal budget is complicated — and the politics of that budget is even worse. But we know that spending cuts are ahead. The questions are how deep and how soon?

Let’s try to break this down: The government’s current spending is authorized by a Continuing Resolution, a temporary measure, that ends on December 11. So the Congress that’s in office now could either pass a short-term spending bill, one that goes on until January or February, or it could wrap up a lot of spending plans into a large package that would keep the government funded through September 2015.

Mark Trahant

This is where the politics gets complicated.

The Republican Senate takes office in January and many members, especially the Tea Party firebrands, would like to use the budget process to kill the Affordable Care Act or stop any immigration action by the president. That would call for a short-term spending bill, no more than a few weeks, because they’ll have more power after January. But other Republicans like the idea of some time to consolidate power before taking on such a large issue, one that could turn ugly.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, is an advocate for a spending package that lasts for the rest of the fiscal year. His bill could be brought to the floor around December 8. According to conservative The Weekly Standard that bill would “clear the decks” for important policy debates in the next Congress “instead of getting bogged down in old work.”

But remember how this works in the chaos of the House. Leadership makes a proposal (however sensible) and then reaches out and looks for support from its members and then discovers there are not enough votes. Already House members are saying, not so fast.

But this time it’s not just the House.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, who is likely to be the next chairman of the Budget Committee, is saying the same thing. He told Megyn Kelly of Fox News about his fears on presidential immigration action, saying “Congress simply has to bar the expenditure of any money to carry out such a scheme because it would be a very expensive scheme.” A short-term budget would give Congress time to see what the president does on immigration before responding with budget language.

The crazy part of this story is that Congress, especially a Republican Congress, cuts the wrong part of the budget. The federal budget deficit dropped to $483 billion last year. That is the lowest deficit since 2007, according to The Washington Post. So what does Congress want to do with that success? Cut more. Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said last month that Congress has already cut too much.

But more cuts are coming. Rogers likely spending plan is likely to trim several billion below last year’s spending levels — and that’s the best alternative from this Congress. Other Republicans want to cut deeper or use the budget to play games, forcing the president’s hand on policy.

So where does Indian country fit in? The amount of money spent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service and other programs, amounts to a tiny slice of federal spending. Yet all domestic spending would be under pressure.

At a conference last year, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn said the House Appropriations had some 11 percent reductions marked up in Indian programs. That did not happen because of the Murray-Ryan budget deal, but it’s worth thinking about as a framework for the next round of cuts that will be identified next month.

What’s worse? This year remains the exception to the Budget Control Act (or the sequester). Beginning in October, Congress will be required to meet even lower spending targets through sequestration. Of course we know how that went last time around. At a hearing in March, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said “we must also acknowledge that these are harsh financial times. Tribes have not recovered from sequestration which resulted in across the board cuts to all federal programs, including those affecting tribes and nowhere was this more devastating than the Indian Health Service where due to sequestration, continuing resolutions and a 16-day government shutdown, health care to Indian people was jeopardized.”

That pretty well sums up what’s ahead.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.