Running the 2006 federal appropriations marathon

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In Washington, the media routinely focus on the hot-button issues: the war
on terror, Iraq, Supreme Court nominees, abortion rights and others. Few
realize that the federal budget is often the best way to gauge the nation's
priorities.

A review of President Bush's fiscal year 2006 budget request reveals
increases for foreign assistance and the defense sector, not surprising
given the focus since Sept. 11, 2001 on foreign relations and our ongoing
missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The request also includes the spending blueprint for the BIA, Indian Health
Service, American Indian housing, Indian education and other Indian
programs.

Some items in the request should come as no surprise: structural changes to
the federal balance sheet by making permanent the previously-enacted tax
cuts, and support for the elements of an "ownership society" - higher rates
of homeownership, employee-directed Social Security investment options, and
individual health savings accounts.

Federal spending decisions have inordinate impact in Native communities
because they are among the poorest in the nation and are highly dependent
on federal resources for their most basic needs: housing, education and
health care, to name but three. Those who point to the successes of Indian
gaming tribes as proof that needy Indians are a relic of the past merely
need to spend time in Navajo country, up at Lame Deer, Mont., home of the
Northern Cheyenne Tribe, or in rural Alaska to know otherwise.

Presidential budget requests reflect the priorities of an administration as
well as current challenges it faces; for the Bush administration, the
priority is to defend the nine-year-old Cobell v. Norton lawsuit and
continue to fund trust improvements within the Interior Department.

The request includes $2.2 billion for the BIA, a decrease of $108 million
over 2005's enacted level, with the bulk of the reduction in construction
(minus $87 million) and the land and water settlement account (minus $19
million). A number of reallocations are also in play with increases in
public safety and central office operations offset with corresponding
decreases in education and resource management.

The Office of Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) is to receive $304
million - $270 million for trust programs and $34 million to rebuild
fractionated Indian lands. Fully $135 million in OST funding is proposed
for Historical Accounting activities due to Cobell v. Norton. If the
request is approved, OST will see an increase of $76 million - a 33 percent
increase over fiscal year 2005.

Indian health at the Health and Human Services Department fares better than
the non-trust accounts at Interior. The president proposes funding the
Indian Health Service at $3.8 billion, a $72 million increase over fiscal
year 2005. The priorities for Indian health are the operation of six new
outpatient facilities (two of which were built with tribally-generated
dollars), the Special Diabetes Program for Indians and a small boost in
funding for contract support costs that will enable 20 - 25 more programs
to be administered by tribes in fiscal year 2006.

Indian housing will see a reduction from $622 million in 2005 to $522
million and, if approved by Congress, the reduction will be the second
spending cycle in which the housing account has seen a significant
reduction. In 2004, housing was funded at $650 million.

Structural reforms to community development functions are also proposed:
the multi-billion dollar Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) is
proposed for transfer to the Department of Commerce for integration into
other development programs. HUD officials indicate that the tribal
component of the CDBG will continue to be administered by HUD.

With these proposals in the request, it is important to keep in mind some
fundamentals of the budget and appropriations process:

THE BUDGET REQUEST IS JUST THAT - A REQUEST

It is a proposal by the president to Congress to fund federal functions at
certain levels for the coming fiscal year. There are elements in every
request that are, in the eyes of the administration, "non-negotiable"; but
all 535 members of the Senate and House have their own perspectives on the
budget request and often have very different views about which programs
should be supported and which should not.

THE APPROPRIATIONS CYCLE IS A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT

The period from the president's budget request in February to the signing
of the 14 appropriation bills in September is an eight-month endeavor
demonstrating that the appropriations process is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Budget and Appropriations committees, in particular, have their own
ideas about what the priorities of the nation ought to be and the debate
intensifies through the spring with appropriations hearings, into the
summer with floor action and on through to the autumn with House-Senate
conference committees. Success in achieving one's spending goals,
therefore, goes to those not only savvy and smart but to those with
persistence and patience.

COMPETITION FOR SCARCE DOLLARS IS KEEN AND TRIBES SHOULD SET PRIORITIES

If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. This often obliges
House and Senate members and their staff to make decisions based on
criteria that have little to do with on-the-ground realities in Native
communities.

The recent increase in Indian school construction funding is a good example
of setting priorities and achieving results over time. In the late 1990s,
tribes and their friends in Congress articulated a great need for new
school construction. Through several fiscal years, by the early 2000s, the
school construction account was increased to close to $1 billion. The
effort took time, discipline and a willingness to set and stand by budget
priorities.

INDIAN PROGRAM DOLLARS V. EVERYTHING ELSE

Even if Cobell v. Norton were settled tomorrow, there is no guarantee that
funds for the OST would be re-directed to other Indian accounts like health
care, school construction or law enforcement. As always, competition is
keen for scarce dollars within the allocations of the Interior
Appropriations subcommittees and the unspoken truth of spending decisions
is that there are "Indian dollars" to fund Indian programs and "other
dollars" to fund everything else.

In any given fiscal year, therefore, every dollar spent on Cobell v. Norton
or probate or land fractionation is one less dollar available for health
care, law enforcement or school construction and vice versa.

So, what can we expect from the spending debates for fiscal year 2006? Just
as there were calls for "means-testing" Indian programs and services in the
late 1990s, it is possible that there could be renewed calls to revisit
tribal income, tribal needs and federal spending decisions especially in
light of the tight budget guidelines under which the 109th Congress is
working.

Once the appropriations committees begin to hold hearings on the request,
it is probable that friends of Indian people will try to eliminate the most
severe budget cuts and propose modest increases where possible.

What is certain is that there will be calls - from friend and foe alike -
that the needs of Native communities be satisfied to a much larger degree
by tribal revenues and away from dependence on federal outlays.

Given all this, I would recommend we lace up our running shoes and start
stretching because there is a long race to be run this year.

Paul G. Moorehead is a partner in the Indian Tribal Governments Practice
Group of the Washington, D.C. office of Gardner Carton & Douglas LLP. From
1997 - 2005 he was chief counsel and staff director to the U.S. Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs.