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Not a Bad Federal Budget, But Consider It a Transition Plan

A column by Mark Trahant about the new U.S. budget.
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I’ve been writing a lot lately about the Era of Contraction—the shrinking of the federal government—and what that policy means to Indian Country.

Only not this year. Last week Congress finally approved money for fiscal year 2012 (three months into the spending year) and many programs serving American Indians will get more money, not less.

First, the big picture. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, describes this year’s spending bill this way: “When all FY 2012 Appropriations legislation is complete, Congress will have cut discretionary spending for two straight years in a row – the first time this has occurred in modern history.”

Indeed: This budget is about less.

The Environmental Protection Agency takes a 6 percent cut from the president’s request or a budget of $8.4 billion. The House conference report makes clear that EPA is a Republican budget target because it represents “unnecessary spending” and a “regulatory overreach, which has a detrimental effect on American businesses and the recovering economy.” (To give an example of the spite towards EPA. The administrator’s budget is cut by one-third.) Of course even these numbers are more than Republicans wanted to spend. The House was proposing funding EPA at only $7.1 billion.

The Administration for Children and Families takes a hit of $855 million (even though the demand for services is increasing). But defying logic, Congress also appropriated $5 million for abstinence education, money that was not asked for in the president’s budget.

Other agency reductions include 3 percent less for the Internal Revenue Service, a 5 percent cut for Homeland Security, and a 5 percent cut from Congress’ own budget.

There are also a number of policy-riders in the budget that tell the Obama administration how to spend the money. For example prohibiting new rules for light bulbs (even though the industry has spent a lot of money getting prepared to sell the efficient light bulbs). Another policy measure would delay guidelines on the food industry to limit marketing to children for foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

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Overall federal spending will shrink, slightly. The House Appropriations Committee reports overall spending will be $7 billion less than last year’s level and more than $98 billion less than the president’s budget request.

But there are exceptions. Defense spending will go up some $5.1 billion over last year’s levels and military salaries will be increased by 1.6 percent.

The House Appropriations Committee reports the Bureau of Indian Affairs funding at $2.5 billion, which is $30 million more than the president’s request. “Funding includes significant increases for education programs and facilities, and federal government contractual obligations to tribes are met,” the conference report said.

The Indian Health Service also merits an increase. “The legislation contains $4.3 billion for the Indian Health Service, an increase of $237 million over last year. This funding will help increase access to health facilities for many health problems, including those related to domestic violence, dental health, alcohol and substance abuse, cardiovascular health, diabetes, and infant mortality. Funding is significantly increased for federal government contractual obligations to tribes,” the report said.

Finally the House was not able to defund the Affordable Care Act. There is also more money for managing increases in Medicare and Medicaid. This is important because the number of Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Insurance Program beneficiaries has increased by 51 percent since 2000. There are two reasons for this: The aging of the U.S. population and the growing number of people impacted by the economy. This is an expensive part of the budget because the spending is automatic: Anyone eligible is supposed to get the services. So it makes sense for more management funding when the number of beneficiaries continues to grow.

So what to make out of this year’s spending bill? It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad.

But more important this should be seen as a transition budget because unless Congress repeals the Budget Control Act, next year’s budget will be set on automatic pilot. There won’t be many exceptions, even those based on merit. We should still prepare for the Era of Contraction.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.