Clock is ticking for a holiday shutdown; BIA, IHS workers, contracts will be hit

President Trump says he will not sign a spending bill unless Congress spends more on border security, (YouTube photo)

Mark Trahant

Interior Department’s plan “assumes a shutdown of no more than approximately 30 calendar days or 22 work days.”

A couple of days ago it looked like that Congress would keep the government after the Senate passed another short-term spending bill unanimously. Then President Donald J. Trump took to Twitter, saying that the Congress must spend billions on a border wall or else. Since then the House has passed a spending bill with the wall, a measure that Democrats say is a nonstarter.

Trump praised the House. He tweeted: "Thank you to our GREAT Republican Members of Congress for your VOTE to fund Border Security and the Wall. The final numbers were 217-185 and many have said that the enthusiasm was greater than they have ever seen before. So proud of you all. Now on to the Senate!"

Then Friday morning Trump blamed Democrats for any shutdown (after taking ownership just a week ago). He tweeted: "Senator Mitch McConnell should fight for the Wall and Border Security as hard as he fought for anything. He will need Democrat votes, but as shown in the House, good things happen. If enough Dems don’t vote, it will be a Democrat Shutdown! House Republicans were great yesterday!"

But that fight in the Senate requires 60 votes and it's now more likely that many federal workers, including those at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, will get a Christmas furlough. And tribes and other contractors that work with the federal government will not get paid.

Most of the federal government will continue as normal because Congress has already passed most of its spending bills. However there is a deadline of midnight December 21 for the departments of the Interior, Justice, Transportation, and Agriculture. The Indian Health Service is budgeted through the Interior Appropriations bill, so the agency will be impacted. All told some 420,000 federal workers will be required to report to work and 380,000 will be furloughed, including most of those who work for the Department of Commerce, NASA, Housing and Urban Development and about 52,000 employees of the IRS. Members of Congress will continue to be paid.

The Interior Department reports 2,455 BIA employees will be furloughed. The remaining 4,057 working for the BIA will be considered “excepted.” And all but 40 of the Bureau of Indian Education staff will continue working, 3,344 employees. But employees, furloughed or not, will not receive a paycheck until a new spending bill is signed into law.

The Indian Health Service reports it will “continue to provide direct clinical health care services as well as referrals for contracted services that cannot be provided through IHS clinics.” However, the agency also says it can “only perform national policy development and issuance, oversight, and other functions necessary to meet the immediate needs of the patients, medical staff, and medical facilities. IHS would be unable to provide the majority of funds to Tribes and Urban Indian Health programs.”

But the largest share of the Indian Health Service budget, 54 percent, is money that is transferred to tribes, urban programs, and nonprofits for clinics, hospitals and medical services. That funding stream will come to a halt until the shutdown is resolved.

The Interior Department’s plan “assumes a shutdown of no more than approximately 30 calendar days or 22 work days.”

But even that is uncertain. The Senate is likely to reject the House budget. So the House (and the president) will have to go along with the short-term plan that was rejected by the president yesterday or wait for the new Democratic-controlled Congress that takes office Jan. 3, 2019. That Congress is unlikely to give the president a better deal then.

The uncertainty in federal spending complicates tribal government operations, too. A study by the General Accountability Office in September 2018 found that budget uncertainty is expensive. “Existing challenges related to the recruitment and retention of health care providers—such as difficulty recruiting providers in rural locations—are exacerbated by funding uncertainty. For example, CRs and government shutdowns can disrupt recruitment activities like application reviews and interviews,” GAO found.

In addition, funding uncertainty and shutdowns has “adverse financial effects on tribes and their health care programs. For instance, one tribe incurred higher interest on loans when the uncertainty of the availability of federal funds led to a downgraded credit rating, as it was financing construction of a healthcare facility.”

The solution would be for Congress to forward-fund Indian health spending. The GAO said: “IHS officials stated they believe advance appropriations could help ensure continuity of health care services through certainty of funding. IHS officials also said that while lapses in appropriations do not halt patient care, they do create complications—such as the determination of excepted personnel as described above—that could be eliminated by funding provided through advance appropriations. Tribal representatives said the certainty of funding that would come with IHS having advance appropriations would create a sense of stability in tribal health care programs as well.”

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, has introduced legislation to keep IHS open. “Congress needs to stop putting Native Americans’ health care in the crossfire of political spending fights,” Mullin said in a news release. Mullin is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “The Indian Health Service is not only terribly underfunded, but it is one of the only health care agencies that doesn’t receive mandatory or advanced appropriations. Native Americans deserve quality, reliable health care services as promised in treaties with the federal government. My bill, which would provide a stable source of funding for IHS through fiscal year 2019, is a good start.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, on C-SPAN's Washington Journal last week. (C-SPAN photo)

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and a Chickasaw citizen, last week told C-SPAN's Washington Journal that he thought the president was "dug in" but that there was room for a deal. "Democrats have agreed to $1.7 billion additional spending, the president wants $5 billion ... (and) appropriators could figure this out pretty quick."

Cole praised the House bill that passed Thursday. Cole is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. The House bill funds the government at current levels until Feb. 8, 2019, and includes the money the president requested for a border wall.

“Both sides agree that the government should be kept open and operational,” Cole in a news release. “I am pleased that the funding measure passed by the House does exactly that while also providing for some other pressing needs in country. Along with vital funding for disaster relief, the legislation also fulfills the modest request from the president to begin strengthening security at our borders. While a continuing resolution is not ideal for funding the government, the legislation importantly prevents the far worse alternative of a partial government shutdown.”

However Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said the House bill has no chance of passing the Senate. “It’s a cynical attempt to just hurt innocent people and do just what President Trump wants even though they probably know it’s bad for the country,” he said.

The Senate is scheduled to meet at noon Friday to consider the House spending bill.

The government shutdown begins twelve hours later.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports