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Sharp cuts called for

WASHINGTON -- Native people can expect a curtailment of federal funding in
2007, and it may be only small comfort to know they won't be alone.

Ever since the lamented day in which the Supreme Court interpreted the more
narrowly intended Commerce Clause of the Constitution to give Congress
"plenary power" over tribes in all of their doings, Native people have been
more beholden than others to the federal government. So while many
population groups, from students to the elderly and the poor, are apt to
feel the fallout of rollbacks in domestic discretionary spending, Indian
communities could feel it across an even broader spectrum of services than
others.

Many of these budgetary cutbacks will come courtesy of President Bush's
2007 federal budget request, as amended by Congress. The federal budget for
2007 will go into effect next October if it can be enacted by then. But
additional cuts can be expected before then because of a separate deficit
reduction measure.

The new law, approved by a single vote in the Senate and by two in the
House of Representatives, seeks to reduce the federal deficit by about $39
billion. The deficit for this year will weigh in at about $360 billion,
according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, or at about $423
billion, according to other published projections; but in any case, the red
ink is running downhill. And in that context, a projected savings of only
$39 billion -- paid with takings from the current benefits of the elderly,
students, the poor and others -- has been a hard sell in Congress.

But the deficit reduction bill is about to get more bruising. Although the
bill has passed and the president has signed it, it remains a work in
progress -- perhaps not a law at all. This is because of a typographical
error that altered one numeral while the bill was being "enrolled" for the
House vote after passage in the Senate. The typo provided favorable terms
of purchase for expensive medical equipment that can be rented under the
Medicaid program. With hundreds of millions of dollars in the balance, the
error was corrected before going to the White House but not before the
House had voted. Thus a typo has assumed constitutional magnitude; for
under the Constitution both chambers, House and Senate, must vote on the
same version of a bill before it can become law. With two versions of the
same bill enacted into law, anyone aggrieved by the passage in question,
including hospitals and individual Medicaid beneficiaries, would have the
makings of a lawsuit on grounds the law never actually changed.

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The response of lawmakers will set a constitutional precedent, according to
scholars quoted on National Public Radio. Republican leaders insist the
deficit reduction package is settled law, but the GOP tried to get a
clarifying resolution through the House all the same. Democrats blocked it.
In the current congressional election year, Democrats who opposed the
measure may continue to withhold their "unanimous consent" to any
clarifying resolution or technical corrections amendment, meaning either
the entire bill or the erroneous section of it would have to be debated and
voted on yet again in the House. Given the mid-term elections, Democrats
may welcome a second chance to advertise the Republican cutbacks and their
own opposition to them.

But in all likelihood, the bill that became ... not quite a law with the
president's signature, will become new law eventually. With it will come
new expenses for individuals and program reductions for whole classes of
beneficiaries. Among them are some that could extend to Indian country.
Depending on state response to new work guidelines for the Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families program, women will have to work more, and
under tighter restriction, to receive TANF benefits. Federal funding for
state child support enforcement will come to an end, meaning states will
have to pay the full cost of enforcement: potentially a recipe for large
declines in child support payments. The Congressional Budget Office
estimates that 13 million low-income Medicaid recipients will have to pay
more than before for treatment under Medicaid, while insurance for 65,000
in the Medicaid program will end.

The Bush administration's budget request for fiscal year 2007 will extend
much further into Indian country than the deficit reduction measures. The
president proposed cutbacks to domestic discretionary spending because
entitlements to medical care and various mandatory payments (Social
Security and veterans benefits, for example) are protected by law against
any other use unless Congress votes for it, a political impossibility at
present. In addition, Bush continues to fund the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan at levels that belittle historical comparison: Iraq alone costs
U.S. taxpayers $1 billion a month, $250 billion or so overall. (These
official numbers are understated.) Finally, for this administration of war
abroad and surveillance and control at home, spending on "defense" and the
Department of Homeland Security will continue as presidential priorities
into the foreseeable future.

All told, against the background of wars, hurricanes and the huge Social
Security payments due to 77 million soon-retiring "baby boomers," fiscal
sanity demands savings -- lots of savings. Political survival, on the other
hand, demands that savings come not from protected entitlement programs
that would invoke a series of unpopular votes, but from the fraction of the
overall federal budget known as non-military domestic discretionary
spending. That is the funding source for a great many Native-specific
federal programs. As a case in point, the BIA stands to lose $52.4 million
in FY '07 compared with the 2006 budget. The domestic discretionary account
also supports many programs for the populace at large that Native people
have come to rely on. LIHEAP, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program
so crucial on northern reservations during their long winters, is one of
them; the president proposes to fund it at about the same level as in 2006,
notwithstanding the steep rise in home heating costs due to the
hurricane-related inflation of natural gas prices.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., framed the big-picture problem for Indian
programs concisely at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on the
budget Feb. 14: "The pool of domestic discretionary spending that is
available continues to shrink year after year after year, forcing us to
make decisions that shouldn't have to be made."

Now, the president's federal budget request is just that: a request for
Congress to fund his priorities. Congressional members have priorities of
their own, of course. Inevitably, they put their stamp on the budget before
it is finally enacted. In recent years, a cadre of congressional members
from Indian-populous states has been notably successful in protecting some
Indian-specific programs and in restoring cutbacks proposed for others.