Congress considers delaying latest spending debate until just before holiday

Mark Trahant

Interior spending bill includes Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education

This will be an interesting holiday season in the nation’s capital. A few days before Christmas -- when a lot of folks (including members of Congress) are eager to get out of town -- the Congress must pass a spending bill that funds part of the government, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

The deadline had been this week but on Monday Congress reached a deal to put off the decision until December 21 by extending the temporary budget, called a Continuing Resolution, for two additional weeks. “The decision, confirmed by aides involved in the talks, was made because of the observances surrounding the death of former president George H.W. Bush. The former president will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda ahead of a service at Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday,” The Washington Post reported. “The House has canceled all votes for this week.”

Roll Call reports that the temporary spending bill also includes a two-week extension of the Violence Against Women Act.

Most of the federal budget is already law, but several spending bills remain, including the Interior Department's appropriation. This will not be an easy spending bill to pass, even as a holiday gift. It’s nearly the last act of the 115th Congress. New members, and a Democratic majority in the House, will take office on Jan. 3. But even though Republicans are running things, they will need votes from Democrats in both the House and the Senate. The two big sticking points: More money for a border wall as well as any potential protections for Robert Mueller’s probe of the Trump administration.

There are still differences in the spending plan within the Congress. The House, for example, calls for $5.9 billion for the Indian Health Service and $3.1 billion for the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education. While the Senate IHS budget is pegged at $5.77 billion. “Additional funds are focused on combating opioid abuse, suicide prevention, domestic violence prevention, and alcohol and substance abuse problems. Funds are also included for infrastructure improvements to health care facilities and $115 million is provided for staffing of new health care facilities,” reports the Senate Interior Appropriations committee. The Senate also would spend $3.07 billion for the BIA and on Indian education programs.

But perhaps the biggest specific policy division between the House and the Senate is the spending plan for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The House bill says it “reins in the EPA's regulatory agenda by reducing regulatory programs by $228 million below FY18 levels.” The Senate sticks with business as usual, even adding money to the EPA funding stream.

The Senate appropriations subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. She recently told the Alaska Journal of Commerce that she would like to bring back congressional earmarks as a way to improve the budgeting process. “You’re going to hear me say the word. Think about it. We’re a pretty unique state here, but if we’re trying to compete in a formula (funding program) that is designed to measure how things look today, how are we ever going to move out on an Arctic port? Our job must be to invest in the future, to drive how things will be,” Murkowski told the Journal of Commerce. “What we as Republicans did some years back was to say there’s way too much dark stuff that’s going on with appropriations so we need to get rid of earmarks. What we needed to do was what we were directing ourselves to do, which was to increase the transparency; have it be wide open to the world.”

The temporary spending bill must still be passed by both Houses and signed into law by President Trump before Friday’s deadline.

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