President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at We The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at We The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Investment in Native youth equals a million lines of code

MARK TRAHANT

No child grows up hearing — or asking — for numbers. Instead the four words, “tell me a story,” are the ones deeply embedded into our human software. And that will never change. But the power of numbers, the importance of data, is growing exponentially and becoming essential to how we understand larger narratives.

Then this is not new. The use of statistics, counts, numbers, all have always been a part of how we tell stories. Buffalo hide paintings are great examples from another century. Pictographs recorded people, buffalo, soldiers, villages, and meteor storms. The data was recorded.  Then we did the same things with ledgers, books, computer tapes, and a couple of decades ago floppy discs, CDs, and thumb drives. Today we carry more data capacity in our phone than we ever had in our offices and homes. And what’s on that recording? IBM once estimated that the content of all of human history totaled some 5 exabytes (or five billion gigabytes of information). Now we produce that many videos, pictures, and words every couple of days.

We need more useful numbers — and this is one of Indian Country’s great challenges in an era of both austerity and transparency. In 1900 the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was $8.2 million. It took nearly 80 years before that funding level topped a billion dollars. Then the first $2 billion was  in 2001. Last year $ 2.6 billion. And the Obama administration’s current request is for $2.924 billion. (I am working on a history of Indian appropriations — more on that soon.)

So I have been thinking about these numbers in the context of the recent narrative about Native youth. The stories themselves are inspiring, starting with the president’s visit with young people in North Dakota, followed by the recent meeting at the White House. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it: “So we all need to work together to invest deeply — and for the long-term — in these young people, both those who are living in their tribal communities … and those living in urban areas across this country. These kids have so much promise — and we need to ensure that they have every tool, every opportunity they need to fulfill that promise.”

This is where the numbers and the story intersect.

A commitment to invest deeply and for the long-term requires serious cash and resources. The president’s budget matches that rhetoric with a budget request of $1 billion to promote Generation Indigenous, an initiative designed for Native American youth. “In today’s global economy a high quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite to success,” the Interior Department said. “President Obama set out a vision for a 21st century education system grounded in both high academic standards and tribal values and traditions. Making advanced education opportunities available for tribal members is a high priority for tribes, who see education as the path to economic development and a better quality of life for their communities through an educated and skilled tribal member workforce.”

Today’s Native youth are perfectly cast for this initiative. Even on remote reservations or Alaska villages this is the digital native generation. They have grown up collecting more data on their phones — music, Facebook posts, video and photographs — than any other generation in history. They grow up connected to other Native youth across the country making deep digital friendships with dozens, even hundreds of other Native American youth. That’s new. It’s exponential.

I also think about the digital opportunity ahead for young people who live in a remote community. You can live anywhere in the world and produce videos for YouTube. Or write computer code. In 1971 a Unix computer had a couple hundred thousand lines of code. Today the software for a modern car has more than 90 million lines of code. That’s a lot of jobs for young people who have the right skills. And why not Generation Indigenous?

Of course that means Congress will have to actually appropriate the kind of dollars to make youth a priority. Not just a story, but a future that’s bolstered by real numbers.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Alaska Commissioner Valerie Davidson, Department of Health and Social Services, speaks about Medicaid expansion and reform at the University of Alaska Southeast. (YouTube photo).

Alaska Commissioner Valerie Davidson, Department of Health and Social Services, speaks about Medicaid expansion and reform at the University of Alaska Southeast. (YouTube photo).

Millions of Montanans, Alaskans and Native Americans wait for health insurance

MARK TRAHANT

The best case for Medicaid expansion in Alaska is being delivered by Valerie Davidson. She’s the recently appointed Commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services and a longtime advocate for improving Native health, most recently the senior director of Legal and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Davidson, who’s Yupik and a member of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, also chaired the Tribal Technical Advisory Group to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from its launch in 2004 until last year. In other words: She knows Medicaid cold. She knows how it benefits a state. She understands what works for Native communities. And, she conveys complicated ideas and statistics with ease.

This is the ideal time for that kind of logic.

Alaska’s Medicaid expansion has reached a decision point. The Alaska Dispatch News reported Tuesday that the governor is threatening a veto unless the Legislature takes on Medicaid reform and expands eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. (Update: The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Republicans are planning a caucus vote to kill the measure for this session.)

At a recent speech in Juneau, Davidson ticked off five reasons why Medicaid expansion makes so much sense.

First, it would expand health care insurance, thus improving health access for at least 42,000 Alaskans. Second, expansion would add money — and jobs — to a state that could use both right now. Third, expansion improves the state’s budget situation by adding more than a billion over the next six years. Fourth, it could be a catalyst for reform. And, fifth, expansion addresses uncompensated care.

Uncompensated care is perhaps the most important part of the Medicaid debate and it does not get a lot of attention. Even if government were to eliminate Medicaid or other insurance, people would still have health care costs. Someone always has to pay.

“We all end up paying for those uncompensated care costs. We pay through increased premiums. We pay for them when a hospital has to increase what it charges everybody else,” Davidson said. She said the hospitals provided more than $90 million worth of uncompensated care in Alaska.

Nationally the figures are huge. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated uncompensated care at $84.9 billion in 2013. Most of that was paid for by hospitals (who pass the cost along to paying patients) and community-based clinics and health centers.

But here is the thing: The states that have expanded Medicaid are seeing the cost for uncompensated care figure dropping dramatically, saving those states some $5 billion.

The Indian health system has its own version of uncompensated care. We all understand and see the Indian Health Service as the government’s fulfillment of its treaty promises made to tribes. But the government does not fund IHS that way; the underfunding is substantial. The original Indian Health Care Improvement Act opened up new revenue from Medicare, Medicaid and other programs to add new dollars to the system.

So since the United States doesn’t fully fund IHS — and Indian Country has low insurance coverage — there remains a gap. Uncompensated care. Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly a third, or 32 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are uninsured, and the cost to IHS for that care was at least $2.1 billion in 2013.

That’s why Medicaid expansion is critical to improve funding for Indian health delivery — especially in states with large Native populations such as Alaska and Montana.

Reservation Medicaid Benefits

Montana’s uncompensated care is nearly $400 million, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

The Montana Legislature is nearing the finish line. Last week a key House committee voted to radically amend the legislation, essentially killing Medicaid expansion. For a bit. Then the legislation made it to the House floor where it passed 54 to 42 returning it to the Senate for minor changes. Supporters are hoping the Senate will make those changes and send the bill to the governor for his signature.

When the House passed the Medicaid legislation, a conservative group, Americans for Prosperity Montana, issued a press release saying the “decision stands directly against the voices of millions of Montanans who have made it clear that they do not want more Obamacare.” That phrase, #millionsofmontanans, quickly became a hashtag on Twitter (Montana has just barely a million citizens).

But Medicaid expansion would benefit millions — Montanans, Alaskans, Native Americans, and people in other states. What makes this argument interesting is that conservatives have lost on the evidence. In state after state the research continues to mount that Medicaid expansion was the best part of the Affordable Care Act and is creating jobs and pumping dollars into state economies. A study by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says the total amount lost for states that have said “no” is more than $423 billion.

What makes this “debate” particularly maddening is that opponents to Medicaid expansion have no viable alternative — except the system that sticks hospitals, clinics and doctors with even more uncompensated care.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Medicaid & Indian Country

Fight for Indian health funding is at critical juncture

MARK TRAHANT

One of Indian Country’s most important debates about increasing funding for the Indian health system is occurring far from Congress in state legislatures across the country. And that is unfamiliar ground to discussions about Indian health and treaty obligations.

The Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare as some call it — significantly expands Medicaid health insurance to more Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives. But the Supreme Court ruled in August 2012 that Congress could not force states into accepting the expansion. Medicaid is a state-federal partnership. So the money flows from Washington into states based on complicated formulas. The cost to states for American Indians and Alaska Natives is negligible because the federal government pays the bill. Only the states, not the federal government, determine who is eligible for the program. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid.

One study by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in the states that have not expanded Medicaid meant that 6.7 million residents remain uninsured in 2016 and these states gave up $423.6 billion in federal Medicaid funds from 2013 to 2022, which shrinks both economic activity and job growth.

Two states with large native populations are considering Medicaid expansion now: Alaska and Montana.

The Montana Budget & Policy Center estimates some 70,000 people would be eligible for the insurance and some 19,000 American Indians. Tuesday a House committee killed the Medicaid expansion bill, but according to the Helena Independent Record there remains a chance the bill could go directly to the House floor for a vote.

Legislators in Juneau are also considering Medicaid expansion this week. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium estimates that expanded Medicaid would cover 40,000 Alaskans adding more than $1.1 billion and 4,000 new jobs.

There is new data that shows just how effective Medicaid expansion can be.

Ed Fox, tribal health director of Washington’s Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and a health care reform expert, has estimated that Medicaid expansion would add $2 billion to the Indian health system across the country. In Washington, Medicaid expansion increased revenues to Indian health clinics by 38 percent statewide, or $14, 451,345 in additional funds, a total of some $54 million for American Indian and Alaska Native patients. Remember this is money that does not need to be appropriated by Congress. Of the 25 tribes reporting in Washington only one showed a decrease in funding and two tribes doubled their Medicaid revenue (four tribes are not included in the data).

Fox called the numbers great. The data pulled from Medicaid claims and could increase slightly. “We plan to hire 4 positions thanks to these increases:  2 Registered Nurses, one social services Case Manager, one Community Health Representative,” Dr. Fox said. “These are the good old days-perhaps. I will now have to thank both IHS and Medicaid for this opportunity to enhance services.”

He also noted now small these numbers are compared to Alaska, should the legislature expand Medicaid. “Maybe $200 million compared to $500 to $600 million for all American Indians / Alaska Natives and only $54 million is paid to WA tribes,” Fox said.

But if these are the good old days in expansion states, the flip side is increased budget pressure on states without Medicaid expansion. At a Senate hearing last May, A.T. Stafne, Chairman of the Assiniboine Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, said he still hopes for increased insurance coverage for American Indians but he remains “uncertain about implementation in Indian Country, especially in states like Montana that rejected the Medicaid expansion … Clearly there is more work to be done if the government is to fulfill its trust responsibility to provide quality healthcare to Indian people, a mandatory obligation under treaties and agreements entered into with Tribal governments.”

That quote captures the challenge: The Affordable Care Act opens up a roadmap for better funding of the Indian health system. But the rules of the road are being drafted in state capitals, one by one, especially in Helena and Juneau.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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Key point: Medicaid expansion fabulous for Indian health system, Wash 38% revenue increase.

Shows why expansion critical in Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Montana.

Building at least one interactive map to show data, a map of Washington with reservation by reservation numbers. Average across Washington is a 38 percent increase in revenue from Medicaid.

Telling the story with numbers. (By request — posting now.)

Source of data is Ed Fox,&Ph.D., Director of Health Services for Port&Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

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Screenshot 2015-04-05 11.02.14Screenshot 2015-04-05 10.59.30

People are driving less -- as is oil consumption. So this might be the ideal time to address climate change because even oil companies have an incentive to leave oil in the ground. (Trahant photo)

People are driving less — as is oil consumption. So this might be the ideal time to address climate change because even oil companies have an incentive to leave oil in the ground. (Trahant photo)

MARK TRAHANT

Could we be nearing the moment to really address climate change?

A quick answer is “no.” Of course not.

The Republicans in Congress are hell-bent on pretending that climate change does not exist let alone agree to any shifts in policy. So they continue to fight for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee tells the story, the pipeline expansion “would carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day 875 miles from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, the oil would go to refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. The new pipeline would also transport some of the rapidly-increasing oil production from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana.”

But here is the thing: There is already a glut of oil and the idea of adding more makes no sense.

As National Public Radio reported last week “there has been some concern that the U.S. will run out of places to put it all. Some analysts speculate that could spark another dramatic crash in oil prices.” How big a decline is an unknown. NPR quotes a Citigroup analyst saying $20 a barrel is possible. Others predict a continued fall in oil, to, say, $35 a barrel. Oil is a commodity and traded on public markets. So the price depends on perception about its supply and scarcity.

One reason why there is so much oil out there is that people are using less. The Nation recently wrote that the Energy Information Administration “projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it’s lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million “lost” barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil’s multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.”

Report by USPRIG Education Fund says driving habits of Americans are unlikely to return to the free wheeling days.

Report by USPRIG Education Fund says driving habits of Americans are unlikely to return to the free wheeling days.

I happen to think the decline in consumption is a long-term trend. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that people drive less after 40 years old — and the Baby Boom is long past that. A New Direction Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, a 2013 report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that “Americans drive no more miles in total today than we did in 2004 and no more per person than we did in 1996.”

And, while Baby Boomers are less inclined to drive, the Millennial generation is thinking about transportation differently, “driving significantly less than previous generations of young Americans. Millennials are already the largest generation in the United States and their choices will play a crucial role in determining future transportation infrastructure needs.”

Even if gas prices stay low these trends are not likely to reverse. As the New Direction report points out:  “If the Millennial-led decline in per capita driving continues for another dozen years, even at half the annual rate … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040—despite a 21 percent increase in population.”

Of course Indian Country is unlikely to be included in this data. Too many reservations require driving because there are few other alternatives. And the price of gas determines how much we’ll have to spend on everything else.

And the idea of cheap gas could help sell climate action. If it’s not profitable to pump oil right now, perhaps, oil companies will find a reason to delay investments in new projects. That means leaving carbon products in the ground for a better return on investment.

This is already happening in Canada. TransCanada is giving up on plans for a new energy port and delaying one of its pipeline projects.

On Tuesday the White House said the U.S. will double the pace of carbon reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025. “This ambitious target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the pathway to achieve deep economy-wide reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050,” the White House said.

And Keystone XL? I don’t see how the White House could justify this project on economic or climate grounds. And especially now because the only way to reach those targets (which most experts say is only a modest improvement) is leave oil right where it is. And now, for a moment at least, it’s the interest of oil companies to do the same.

So long live $20 oil. And let’s leave it in the ground.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

What will Alaska look like in 10,000 years? Who will be here? What will they do? And, most important, what will preserved from the past kilennium? These are not easy questions. Even thinking about the next decade, let alone thousands of years, gets interrupted by every crisis that requires our attention. There is business to transact. Cell phones buzz. Unanswered emails compound. And, so, we think about the now, not the next.

The First Alaskans Institute recently gathered a group of people together for a week in Bethel to think about the future.  Elizabeth Medicine Crow said: “I think intuitively it makes a lot of sense for Native people. But I also think for most people it’s really hard to wrap their arms around, ‘what does that mean? For 10,000 years.’ It’s really not so much of a mystery for us because we can actually turn around and look directly at our past because we’ve been here for longer than that. We know that as stewards of our time, on behalf of our people, that we have at minimum a trajectory of that much time to look forward to.”
Participants at a First Alaskan Institute consider what the next 10,000 years should look like?

Participants at a First Alaskan Institute retreat look at what the next 10,000 years could be like. (Trahant photo)

MARK TRAHANT

What will Alaska look like in 10,000 years? Who will be here? What will they do? And, most important, what will be preserved from the past kilennium?

These are not easy questions. Even thinking about the next decade, let alone thousands of years, is interrupted by every crisis that requires attention. There is business to transact. Cell phones buzz. Unanswered emails compound. And, so, we think about the now, not the next.

What if we step back and only think about the future? We turn off our phones, don’t answer email, and ignore interruption.

The First Alaskans Institute recently gathered a group of people together for a week in Bethel to have that very conversation.  Elizabeth Medicine Crow said that very idea is a part of the institute’s vision and came from the founding board members. “I think intuitively it makes a lot of sense for Native people. But I also think for most people it’s really hard to wrap their arms around, ‘what does that mean? For 10,000 years.’ It’s really not so much of a mystery for us because we can actually turn around and look directly at our past because we’ve been here for longer than that. We know that as stewards of our time, on behalf of our people, that we have at minimum a trajectory of that much time to look forward to.”

First Alaskans President Elizabeth Medicine Crow and Law and Order Commission Chairman Troy Eid.

First Alaskans President Elizabeth Medicine Crow and Law and Order Commission Chairman Troy Eid.

Medicine Crow, who’s president of the institute, said it was a chance to convene a diverse gathering of people who were eager to think deeply about “where we’re going.”

“So it’s not just corporations, it’s not just tribes, it’s not just non-profits, it’s also artists, it’s elders, it’s young people, mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, storytellers, performers, it was a real mix” she said. “It’s non-hierarchical. So it’s not just people who have a title. Leadership to us is our Native people who are stepping up to help our communities and to help our people.”

Medicine Crow is Tlingit and Haida from Kake. She told a story about a lesson she learned from Polynesian navigators. “The traditional practice of sailing by the stars requires that they set their bow looking forward but they are navigating from the stars behind them because from that they can know the direction their bow is going. I think that is such a powerful analogy about the way our ancestors think about time. And the way we should think about it, too.”

The long story that reflects the Alaska Native experience — or Native America’s for that matter — is mostly about the interruptions from the past century or two. So the current challenges are not the norm, certainly not over a 10,000 year history, but nonetheless require our attention to get back on course.

And some of this course correction requires immediate action. In less than fifteen years, for example, Alaska will have a higher percentage of Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans than white people. “The state is already super-diverse. It may not look or feel that way depending on where you’re from in the state but as a whole the state is really diverse. As we continue to march through time, especially for Alaska Native populations, most of our population is under the age of 25 and that birth rate is only increasing. So if you apply that to all the other populations, the same thing is happening, plus we’re having so many more people move up. What Alaska will look like on its face is going to be a lot different by the year 2040 than it does today.”

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This means new sources of political power and coalitions will be formed to deliver change in Alaska (and in so many other parts of the country). Medicine Crow said people felt a sense of power, a recognition that it already exists, ready to walk out the door and do something.

One conversation focused on ending sexual abuse and decided to find a way to create more involvement with the Men’s and Women’s houses. “That was so powerful for the participants from the houses,” Medicine Crow said. “But they came out of it knowing that it was something that was good for our community … to be able to talk about the issue and to really say, ‘enough is enough.’ That was really exciting to see because they were not waiting for someone to say, ‘We now deem you authorized to take care of this, this is not your territory,’ but rather, we’re all Native people, it’s all our responsibility and this is something we can do.”

What struck me about the Bethel gathering (and I was only there part of the time) was a sense of optimism about the future. The benefit of a 10,000 year horizon is that it makes every problem solvable because at the end of the arc is people who continue to live and survive in land of their ancestors.

The goal of the week was not a detailed strategic plan, but a framework for conversations that will continue “to make sure that we’re cultural distinct people. Not the same. Not Alaska Natives being the all the same. But culturally distinct societies of people. And these aren’t even my words,” Medicine Crow says with a smile. “They’re my grandfather’s words.”

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

House Budget Committee report
House Budget Committee report

House Budget Committee report

MARK TRAHANT

The House Budget Committee unveiled its budget Tuesday — and the details are not good news for Indian Country.

First: The budget calls for more spending cuts than any previous Republican budget, some $5.5 trillion over the next decade. The pay off would be a balanced budget. But most of those cuts fall into “domestic” spending and that’s the source of most of the federal dollars for Indian Country.

Second: The budget repeals the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. “Obamacare is not working for America’s families, doctors or employers. It is imperative that the President’s health care law be repealed so that we can start over and make targeted, common sense reforms that will improve access to affordable health care choices,” the House Budget committee said.

“This budget repeals Obamacare in its entirety – including all of the tax increases, regulations, subsidies, and mandates” the House Budget committee said. That includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The proposal would also transform Medicaid into a block grant program, giving the money directly to states. Medicaid now represents some 20 percent of the Indian health system funding.

In a language that’s not English, the report said, “the budget repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion so the program is able to focus on its core mission of serving those in our communities most in need of assistance.” Translation: We’re cutting insurance for those who can least afford to pay. This is nuts. The Medicaid expansion has been the key to making health insurance more available. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act there has been a 35 percent decline in the uninsured, according to new data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 17 million people have insurance coverage under the law. The House budget offers no replacement provisions for those who would lose their health insurance coverage.

This report is full of Orwellian language. Another of my favorites is this line: “We do not invite the across-the-board sequestration cut that would occur if we were to simply budget or appropriate a defense spending level that is above the existing cap mandated under current law.” In other words, the sequester applies to every other part of government, but not Defense. As I mentioned in my last post, this is an attempt to balance the interests of those in Congress who want deep spending cuts with those who want more money for defense.

The budget does not actually appropriate dollars. That is still the job of appropriations committees. But this document would be an overall limit to spending and would force the folks writing budgets to keep their numbers below the caps. This budget is similar to Paul Ryan’s recent approaches to spending and House Democrats said that would mean a cut of at least $375 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a $637 million reduction for the Indian Health Service. But that’s just in direct appropriations. If you reduce Medicaid that could trim as much as a billion dollars from Indian health programs.

The Senate will unveil its budget later this week as well. The goal is to have a budget enacted before April 15. The Senate’s budget will not require a supermajority, by rule it cannot be filibustered. So this budget will reflect the will of the Republican majority in both Houses. The budget still will face a likely veto, especially since it includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the freeTrahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Capitol

MARK TRAHANT

The battle over federal spending is about to get ugly. Real ugly.

It’s been a Republican promise to balance the federal budget within a decade. And in an election campaign that promise look soooo easy. Cut a penny here, another there, and somehow, magically, revenues match spending and there’s a balanced budget.  Since Republicans now control both the House and the Senate this should be a done deal, right?

But that’s not how it happens in the real world. In the federal system there are all kinds of fiscal obligations that move through the system automatically. If a person is eligible for Medicare or Medicaid … then the money is spent. Congress doesn’t have to appropriate a cent. The automatic side of the budget is growing because Baby Boomers are older and drawing more benefits such as Social Security.

But that’s only the beginning of this complex spending debate.

The money spent on American Indians and Alaska Natives is a tiny fraction, far less than one percent of the overall budget. Yet every idea to cut federal spending ends up significantly impacting tribal communities, making it impossible for tribal leaders to plan ahead, and disrupting ongoing initiatives ranging from education to economic development. The president’s budget would benefit Indian Country.

And while there are supporters of Indian Country initiatives in Congress, the bigger issue is the overall budget and how much pressure there will be to trim spending from all federal agencies.

The president’s budget does address the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the spending plan would have “no net effect” on the deficit in 2015 but would reduce deficits between 2016 and 2025.

But that’s not enough for those in Congress who demand a balanced budget. And even the sequester was not enough to do that.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told a Senate panel that “the reality is that balancing the budget for any sustained period is probably not in our immediate future.”  The budget would have to shrink by $5.5 trillion in ten years or eight times the size of the sequester plan and 65 times the Ryan-Murray budget deal (which didn’t last long).

You might think those numbers would be big enough, deep enough, to scare off even committed Republicans. And that’s true — when it comes to Defense spending.

Defense News quoted Sen. John McCain saying he will do “whatever it takes to avert sequester on defense. I will not agree to any budget that does not stop sequestration. We just had testimony this morning that will put the lives of American men and women in uniform in danger if we continue with sequestration.”

So that’s fight number one. Republicans who want to live up to a balanced budget pledge versus Republicans who want to end the sequester — at least as far as military spending. In a lot of ways this will be a contest of wills between the House and the Senate.

So which budget will prevail? The president’s budget — at least in terms of overall spending — has no chance. Congressional budgets will be unveiled shortly and then the fight begins and we can start to wonder what kind of last minute deal will be needed to keep the government operational.

As I said, the battle over federal spending is about to get ugly.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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