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Senators explore budget shortfalls

WASHINGTON - For the second consecutive year, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs slightly raised the veil on a budget process that falls short for Indian accounts, according to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., committee chairman.

Last year, then-chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed some exasperation with agency heads who claim to Congress that they need more funding for Indian programs, but without showing enough fight in the presidential administration's internal budgeting process.

In this year's SCIA hearing on President Bush's proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2008, Dorgan and his Democratic colleague from North Dakota, Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, continued to probe the administration's budgeting process with a pair of witnesses: Interior Department Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason and IHS Director Charles Grim.

Dorgan began the Feb. 15 hearing by noting that the president's proposed budget of $2.9 trillion includes substantial increases in discretionary spending on the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, ''as one would expect given these times and given our challenges,'' but only a 1 percent increase in spending on the nondiscretionary domestic programs that serve many Native people. ''Especially with respect to the budgets dealing with Indian accounts, Indian issues, I'm ... concerned about the lack of funding requests and perhaps we can address some of those needs.''

Congress, given the power of the purse by the Constitution, will modify the president's proposals over the coming months. Dorgan has made Indian health care a priority in his past years on the committee and, now as chairman, he made it clear the priority has only grown. He said that despite a 10 percent increase over last year in the president's request for IHS contract health care funding, the program's ''dramatic under-funding'' condemns Indians to ''health care rationing.'' He called for a different model of health care delivery within IHS.

''In the commercial sector there are developed across this country now and beginning to be developed walk-in clinics, seven days a week, staffed by nurse practitioners for 80 or 90 percent of the routine diagnosis. I think we need to find a way on Indian reservations to have no reservation needed, walk-in capability ... staffed by physicians' assistants and nurse practitioners seven days a week with decent hours. I mean, the fact is on some of the reservations, if you're sick after 4:30 on Friday, the clinic's down, you're out of luck until Monday. And they are in remote areas. I'd like to work with you [Dr. Grim] to see if we can develop a different model with respect to some of those issues as well.''

At different points during the testimony, Dorgan deplored the president's proposed elimination of funding for the Johnson O'Malley educational grants program, the Housing Improvement Program and urban Indian health clinics.

Conrad tried to get a ''rough estimate'' of what the Indian affairs budget would require to stay even with inflation from year to year. He noted that the president's request of $2.23 billion for FY '08 represents only a $7 million increase from his request for the previous year. His persistence led to a dialogue with Cason, later joined by Dorgan and Grim:

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Conrad: To actually deliver the same services would require at least an inflation adjustment. And with the large amount of money that's involved in health care, you'd have to have more than an inflation adjustment just to stay even. So would I be wrong in assuming you'd have to have roughly $90 million in addition just to stay even?

Cason: Senator, as I'm sure you know, we [Interior Department] don't construct our budgets that way. I'm certain that there's a lot of ways you could go about constructing numbers. [...]

Conrad: Well, there is a CBO [Congressional Budget Office] baseline. And what's the CBO baseline indicate to be required?

Cason: Again, as you know, we don't construct our budgets that way. [...]

Conrad: I know exactly how it works. That's not my question. My question - I'm trying to find out how much money it would take to deliver the same services that you deliver in 2007. It's obviously not the same amount of money this year, 2008. Can't be the same.

Cason: We do not approach our budget that way, Senator. We -

Conrad: I got that message. Tell me, I got a question I'm trying to get answered, and you don't seem to want to answer it.

Cason: I didn't do that calculation, Senator.

Conrad: Well, I can do the calculation. I can figure out it's gotta be about $90 million, and the president's got $1 million. ... What the president has got here is in real terms a significant cut. ... Tribal colleges - who's the best person here [on the witness panel] for that [question]?Cason: That's probably mine as well.Conrad: Oh, good. You didn't do so well on the first five questions. Here's the bonus question. Tribal colleges: $54.7 million. Is that more than, equal to or less than tribal colleges got last year?Cason: As I recall, our tribal college budget is relatively flat.Conrad: So that would be, the answer to that question would be, the same as ... but in real terms, of course, that means it's a cut, because there's a thing called inflation. ... How much did you [Interior] ask for from the Office of Management and Budget? What was your [budget] request that you submitted [to OMB]? ... We all know how it works. You go to the Office of Management and Budget and you ask for a certain amount of money to do the things that you believe are necessary to do, and then they make a decision. We know that. And we know there's a difference between what you've asked for. Was there a difference?Cason: Yes.Conrad: And can you tell us how much the difference was?Cason: No.Conrad: And why can't you tell us? You know what you asked for.Cason: That's - my understanding is that that's an internal deliberation within the administration as to - there's a process, as you know, Senator. ... There's a dickering process in there. [...]Conrad: So you can't tell us what you asked for?Cason: No.Conrad: But it's fair to say you asked for more than you got?Cason: It's fair to say we had a lot of discussion about my budget.Conrad: Did you ask for a lot more than you got? ... Let me say the last person I asked these questions then was promptly fired because they actually answered the questions.Cason: I'm aware of that.And that's where it ended after Dorgan and Grim read from the same script: Agency heads are paid to defend the president's budget requests, and they'll likely be out of a job if they second-guess it. That's a task for congressional members.