Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

Agency Says Indian Health Should Not Be Exempt From Medicaid Work Rules Because They Are ‘Race-Based’

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration is supporting a major policy shift on Indian health programs which could result in a loss of millions of dollars and sabotage treaty rights.

A story in Politico Sunday raised the issue. It said “the Trump administration contends the tribes are a race rather than separate governments, and exempting them from Medicaid work rules — which have been approved in three states and are being sought by at least 10 others — would be illegal preferential treatment. ‘HHS believes that such an exemption would raise constitutional and federal civil rights law concerns,’ according to a review by administration lawyers,” Politico said.

The new policy on Medicaid work requirements “does not honor the duty of the federal government to uphold the government-to-government relationship and recognize the political status enshrined in the Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, and other federal laws, said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “Our political relationship is not based upon race.”

“The United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans,” Mary Smith, who was acting head of the Indian Health Service during the Obama administration and is a member of the Cherokee Nation, told Politico. “It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world — they’ve paid through land and massacres — and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?”

Medicaid has become a key funding stream for the Indian health system — especially in programs managed by tribes and non-profits. Medicaid is a state-federal partnership and public insurance. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid eligibility, but the Supreme Court ruled that each state could decide whether or not to expand. Since the expansion of Medicaid some 237,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives in 19 states have become insured.

Officially Medicaid represents 13 percent of the Indian Health Service’s $6.1 billion budget (just under $800 million).

But even that number is misleading because it does not include money collected from third-party billing from tribal and non-profit organizations. In Alaska, for example, the entire Alaska Native health system is operated by tribes or tribal organizations and the state says 40 percent of its $1.8 billion Medicaid budget is spent on Alaska Native patients. That one state approaches the entire “budgeted” amount for Medicaid.

Other states report similar increases. Kaiser Family Foundation found that in Arizona, one tribally-operated health system reported that about half of visits were by patients covered by Medicaid in 2016. And, an Urban Indian Health Program, reported that its uninsured rate at one clinic fell from 85 percent before the Affordable Care Act to under 10 percent.

Those Medicaid (and all insurance) dollars are even more significant because by law they remain with local service units where the patient is treated (and the insurance is billed). In Alaska more than two-thirds of those dollars are spent on private sector doctors and hospitals through purchased care for Alaska Native patients. And, unlike IHS funds, Medicaid is an entitlement. So if a person is eligible, the money follows.

A recent report by Kaiser Health News looked at Census data and found that 52 percent of residents in New Mexico’s McKinley County have coverage through the Medicaid.  That’s the highest rate among U.S. counties with at least 65,000 people. “The heavy concentration of Medicaid in this high-altitude desert is a result of two factors: the high poverty rate and the Indian Health Service’s relentless work to enroll patients in the program,” Kaiser reported. Most of McKinley County is located on the Navajo and Zuni reservations.


Kaiser Health News said Medicaid has opened up new opportunities for Native patients to “get more timely care, especially surgery and mental health services. It has been vital in combating high rates of obesity, teen birth, suicide and diabetes, according to local health officials.”

However the growth of Medicaid is resulting in unequal care for patients in the Indian health system. The benefits in some states, including those that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, are more generous. Other states not only refused to expand Medicaid and have been adding new restrictions such as requiring “able-bodied” adults to have their Medicaid eligibility contingent on work.

But the Indian health system — the federal Indian Health Service and tribally and nonprofit operated programs — are in a special case because there is a 100 percent federal match for most services. So states set the rules, but do not have to pay the bill. (Medicaid is often the second largest single item in a state budget behind public schools.)

Medicaid is the largest health insurance program in America, insuring one in five adults, and many with complex and long-term chronic care needs. The Trump administration and many state legislatures controlled by Republicans see Medicaid as a welfare program. While most Democrats view it simply as a public health insurance program.

Work rules are particularly challenging for Indian Country. Unlike other Medicaid programs, patients in the Indian health system will still be eligible to receive basic care. So stricter rules will mean fewer people will sign up for Medicaid and the Indian Health Service — already significantly underfunded — will have to pick up the extra costs from existing appropriations. That will result in less money, and fewer healthcare services, across the board.

A letter from the Tribal Technical Advisory Group for Medicare and Medicaid said American Indians and Alaska Natives “are among the nation’s most vulnerable populations, and rely heavily on the IHS for health care. However, the IHS is currently funded at around 60 percent of need, and average per capita spending for IHS patients is only $3,688.” The latest per person cost for health care nationally is $10,348 (totalling $3.3 trillion, nearly 20 percent of the entire economy).

The tribal advisory group said it is “critically important” that there be a blanket exemption for IHS beneficiaries from the mandatory work requirements.

A report in September by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives on Medicaid already work, yet continue to face high rates of poverty. It said over three-quarters of American Indians and Alaska Natives are in working families, but that’s a gap of about 8 percent compared to other Americans (83 percent).

The Trump administration’s characterization of tribal health programs as “race-based” is particularly troubling to tribal leaders because it would reverse historical precedence.

A memo last month from the law firm of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “has ample legal authority to single out IHS beneficiaries for special treatment in administering the statutes under its jurisdiction if doing so is rationally related to its unique trust responsibility to Indians. Under familiar principles of Indian law, such actions are political in nature, and as a result do not constitute prohibited race based classifications. This principle has been recognized and repeatedly reaffirmed by the Supreme Court and every Circuit Court of Appeals that has considered it, and has been extended to the actions of Administrative Agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services even in the absence of a specific statute.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a Shoshone-Bannock tribal citzen. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Cross posted on Indian Country Today.

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

 

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House Speaker Paul Ryan said he will not run for re-election. His legacy includes a massive spending while calling for smaller government. (Photo by Vince Schilling / Indian Country Today)

 

Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

Paul Ryan came to Washington to blow up Washington. He was first elected to represent his Wisconsin district at 28 years old. He campaigned over his career for a federal government that should shrink dramatically, spend far less, that taxes should be low, and the Republicans should be the party of big ideas.

Ryan announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election. He says he will complete his term as Speaker, but that’s not certain. He likely will face pressure to step down early, so another Republican can lead the party’s team into the November election. (More than forty Republicans have already announced their retirement contributing to the story about a coming Democratic wave.)

The Speaker leaves behind a different kind of legacy. He did get his tax cuts and substantial changes in the regulatory framework. But he also delivered more federal spending than ever. The deficit will hit $804 billion this year (a jump of 21 percent in a single year) and exceed $1 trillion by 2020. And, a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, says that a decade from now the total debt will be larger than the entire economy. “That amount is far greater than the debt in any year since just after World War II,” the CBO said Monday.

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The problem for Ryan, like Speaker John Boehner before him, is that the Republican majority is nearly ungovernable. The only way for Congress to function, to actually pass a budget, is to build a coalition that includes most Republicans, some Democrats, and work with a similar coalition in the Senate. That often means spending more money. That’s not the Congress — and the party of big ideas — that Ryan once had imagined.

And President Donald J. Trump has made that process worse. He caters to the bloc in Congress that cares little about actually governing. Chaos is fine. Big ideas, not so much.

Ryan proposed a major reform of government in 2010 long before he was elected Speaker of the House. It had his big ideas: Replace Medicare with direct payments to seniors who then could buy their own health insurance; turn Medicaid into a block grant to states; end employer-based health insurance; and dramatically cut government and taxes. There was no support for that plan.

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Then two years ago, as a new speaker, Ryan unveiled another plan for reshaping government. “A Better Way” included a reform of the Indian Health Service by “giving choices to American Indians.” His big idea was to have the government issue vouchers for Indian health, outside the system. “Not only will this give American Indians more choice in where they receive care,” the Ryan plan promised. “It will challenge Indian health facilities to provide the best care possible to American Indians.”

And of course that voucher system would have cost less. The Ryan plan also included a provision for a Native American Health Savings Account so individual tribal members could buy their own health care services  (Never mind a treaty sanctioned right.)

The basic premise of Ryan’s plan was that poverty is a problem because of government programs, thus, shrink the government, and poverty will go away. He told National Public Radio: “Let’s break up the welfare monopoly, instead of having just the welfare agency at the county level give people their benefits, which they basically rubber-stamp. … They don’t actually treat the person. Let other providers also provide these full-scale wraparound benefits. Let the Catholic Church do it. Let Lutheran social services. Let America Works, a for-profit agency that’s good at this.”

This is not a new idea; it was the same logic in the 1940s when Republican complained then that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was responsible for poverty, horrible living conditions, and general mismanagement. The solution over the next decade was the idea of “freeing the Indians” by terminating the federal responsibility, Termination. And a hundred and nine tribes were terminated, representing some 12,500 tribal members, and the end result was poverty conditions that were far worse.

That’s likely what would have happened again had Ryan’s “choice” approach to Indian health became law.

Ryan’s, “A Better Way,” once again called for turning Medicaid over to the states. “Instead of shackling states with more mandates, our plan empowers states to design Medicaid programs that best meet their needs, which will help reduce costs and improve care for our most vulnerable citizens.”

Medicaid has become a significant revenue source for the Indian health system. Under current law, Medicaid is a partnership between the federal and state governments. But states get a 100 percent federal match for patients within the Indian health system. Four-in-ten Native Americans are eligible for Medicaid insurance.

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma and a Chickasaw Nation citizen, said Ryan will be missed in Congress. “Paul Ryan is a visionary leader, a committed conservative and a master of the legislative process. His tenure as been marked by exceptional accomplishments – the largest tax cut and reform in a generation; the most regulatory reform for any Congress in the modern age; the most substantial defense buildup in 15 years; the end of the individual mandate in Obamacare – and a host of other important legislative accomplishments,” Cole said.

“He is not only the best Speaker I’ve had the opportunity to serve with, he’s also the finest person. Even Paul’s political opponents readily concede that he’s a person of absolute integrity, deep sincerity and of profound decency.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports (This story is cross posted with Indian Country Today.)

Paulette Jordan is one of seven Native American candidates running for statewide office — and one of two Native women running to a lead a state

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Paulette Jordan: The issues “that tribes push forward are good for everyone.” Jordan is running for governor of Idaho and has a May 15 primary. (Official photo)

Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

A couple of weeks ago I was driving across the border into Idaho from Montana. I stopped the car and took a picture of the “Welcome to Idaho” sign. I thought: It would be cool if that sign read, just under the Idaho greeting, Paulette Jordan, Governor.

Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, is running as a Democrat in what is perhaps the reddest, most Republican state in the country. So it’s an impossible task, right?

No. Let’s do the math.

The first part of that equation is done: Running. So many talented people survey a political campaign and then, for whatever reason, pass. But the inviolate rule of politics is that you must run in order to win. So that is a huge step.

Jordan is one of seven Native American candidates running for statewide office and one of two Native women running to a lead a state, (something that has never been done before.) She will be the first of those candidates to face voters and she will need to win a contested Democratic primary on May 15. A date that’s coming up fast.

One of the most important reasons for Native American candidates is the aspirational aspect. It’s a way for young people to see a future, (one that is far more important than just politics.) During a recent trip to Fort Hall, and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Jordan took time out to visit the students. She also met with community members where she said on KPVI 6 that the issues that “tribes push forward are good for everyone, all of humanity. So when we talk about education in tribal communities, it’s the same for Hispanic communities, it’s the same for every single district up and down this state.”

Jordan is running against A.J. Balukoff, who, unlike Jordan, can use his own wealth to fund his campaign. (Something he has already done to the tune of $175,000.) Four years ago Balukoff was the Democratic nominee for governor and lost by a wide margin.

Idaho has an odd primary. The Republicans limit their ballots to anyone except those who publicly claim party membership. But anyone who is “unaffiliated” or independent can pick up a Democratic Party ballot on election day. Because Idaho is such a conservative state, most voters sign up with the Republicans. Four years ago more than 155,000 voters did just that, while only 25,638 voted in the Democratic primary.

This is actually an advantage for a candidate like Jordan. She only needs to find a few thousand votes (my bet is there will be more interest than four years ago.) So, let’s say that means the primary winner will earn at least 25,000 votes. That’s a plausible number in a season where nontraditional candidates are getting a second and third look.

There is only one county in Idaho that regularly votes for Democrats: Blaine County. That’s Sun Valley, Ketchum, the Wood River Valley. Think lifestyles of the rich and famous. Hillary Clinton had a two-to-one margin over President Donald J. Trump in Blaine County. Jordan must do well here.

Votes from Idaho’s five reservations could help, too. The numbers are small, but if they are one-sided, say 100, 200, 300 votes to a handful, it could give her an edge. Especially in a primary.

Jordan should also poll well with younger Democratic voters and with Hispanics. These two constituent groups are growing in numbers and importance. Well, sort of. Idaho is a young state: There are more people under 18 than any other demographic group. And younger voters from 18 to 25 are a relatively small cohort at roughly 155,000 people. But in the last elections this group increased its turnout rates, so there is a potential upside. Hispanics now account for 12 percent of Idaho’s population and, according to Pew Research, are some 80,000 eligible voters (far more than what would be needed in a primary election.)

The math is there. It’s possible.

What about Jordan’s message? Is she connecting with primary voters? That’s a much tougher call. She has to reach voters in a state with two time zones and a distinct geographic divide. I often joke that Idaho is the only state with three capitals: Salt Lake City, Spokane and Boise. Each major city has its influence over regions of the state.

Recently Jordan’s team made a rookie mistake adding the word “ever” to an email about her being the only Democrat elected in North Idaho. This took away from an important message: Jordan won re-election to the Idaho House two years ago in a terrible cycle for Democrats. Her campaign convinced voters who would not normally vote for a Democrat. This should be said over and over as a reason why Idaho Democrats should vote for Jordan.

And after that? The toughest hill to climb come after the primary. Jordan would then need to make her case to Idaho’s deeply conservative Republican voters. But if there is ever a year to do just that, it’s this one.

But first the May 15 primary is coming fast. That’s a hurdle that Jordan needs to clear first.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports (Cross-posted on TrahantReports)

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President Donald J. Trump speaks about the $1.3 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill before signing into law. (Official White House photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Indian Health, Bureau of Indian Affairs see a budget increase

Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

The federal government’s newly enacted budget is a massive “omnibus” act that spends $1.3 trillion and makes some members of Congress pleased and others angry. It’s a document that reflects a broken budget system. And, at the same time, it’s a business-as-usual document in a presidential administration that has promised structural change.

“There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about,” President Donald J. Trump told reporters at the White House Diplomatic Reception room. “But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. Nobody read it, it’s only hours old.”

But the negotiations were not hours old. The back and forth between Democratic and Republican lawmakers was essentially a year late. This spending bill only funds the federal government between now and the end of September. But the process took so long because neither side had enough votes to pass the document on their own; Republicans needed votes from Democrats and to get those votes there had to be deals. Lots of deals. Business as usual.

And business as usual is good for Indian Country. Federal Indian programs, some of which had been slated for either elimination or deep cuts, continued on course.

The omnibus spending bill increases funding for the Indian Health Service by 10 percent, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education by 7 percent to $3.064 billion. The IHS budget line s $5.5 billion. When the budget is compared to the president’s request, the increases are even sharper, more than 16 percent for the IHS and 23 percent for the BIA.

At the BIA, according to an analysis by Amber Ebarb at the National Congress of American Indians, “Overall, the eliminations and reductions proposed in the president’s budget were rejected.”

Other budget items:

  • The bill includes a 3 percent set aside for Indian tribes within the funds available under the Victims of Crimes Act. The cap for these funds was set at $4.4 billion, which amounts to $133 million. As Ebarb wrote: “This is an important step forward for Indian Country, which has the highest rate of criminal victimization and had up until this point been left out of this funding. This funding will address the long standing inequity and meaningfully improve the landscape of victim services in Indian Country.”
  • The bill provides $50 million for grants to Indian tribes or tribal organizations to address the epidemic, and $5 million for tribes in the Medication-Assisted Treatment for Prescription Drug and Opioid Addiction program.
  • Infrastructure spending would increase for BIA and IHS construction, BIA road maintenance, and a $100 million competitive grant program is added under Native American Housing Block Grants in addition to the $655 million provided for the NAHBG formula grants.

 

President Trump said he signed the bill into law because it increased military spending. “I looked very seriously at the veto. But because of the incredible gains that we’ve been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our thinking.”

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports (Cross-posted on TrahantReports)

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Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

Congress did its job: The federal government’s budget is done. The last step was President Donald J. Trump’s signature and so now the government marches on. At least for the rest of this year, until the end of September.
But the White House said Friday that the president may veto the budget because there is not enough funding for a border wall or a solution for the so-called Dreamers. This is after the president assured House and Senate leaders that he would sign the measure into law.

 

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A veto would mean the federal government would shut down at midnight and Congress would have to start a new round of budget negotiations. This will be even more complicated because many lawmakers have left Washington for a two-week recess.
There will be intense pressure from some Republicans for the president to sign this budget into law anyway.

Budgets are a guide to priorities: What programs are more important? Where is the support from Congress and from the people? Did the president get what he wanted?
That last question is the easy one. The money for the budget wall was minimal, at best.
It’s fair to say the administration’s budget was soundly rejected by a Republican Congress. Sure, Democrats contributed a great deal to this budget (and Democrat votes were required to make it so,) but even before that occurred, majority-party lawmakers were dismissing the harsh budget program changes sought by the president.
The president’s team had all kinds of ideas: Deep spending cuts, the elimination of public broadcasting, replace Medicaid with block grants, and, yes, even deeper spending cuts. Yet Congress enacted a budget that increased federal spending both for the military and domestic programs. It’s Congress, not the president, writing the checks.
How bad was the president’s budget? The National Congress of American Indians put it this way in recent testimony: “The president’s budget would cut the Bureau of Indian Affairs by about half a billion dollars, or 15 percent. BIA Social Services would be reduced by more than a third, Indian Child Welfare by more than a quarter, and critical human services programs, law enforcement and courts programs, environmental protection, housing, and education programs would face unconscionable reductions. Infrastructure programs, such as the Indian Community Development Block Grant would be eliminated, and the Indian Housing Block Grant and road maintenance would be reduced.”
Instead, Congress added dollars and protected programs that the White House sought to eliminate.
“This bill represents real progress for Indian Country, significantly increasing our investments in Native health care, infrastructure, economies, and communities. It rejects the president’s dangerous proposed budget cuts and instead provides funding increases that will lead to healthier communities and better outcomes across Indian Country,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, in a news release. Udall is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.
The omnibus spending bill would have increased funding for the Indian Health Service by 10 percent, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education by 7 percent to $3.064 billion. The IHS budget line is $5.5 billion.
Conservatives were not happy with the additional spending in the omnibus bill. “Republicans control the government, yet Congress still follows the Democrats’ playbook,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky said. “Time and again, spending skyrockets, and conservatives are expected to fall in line to praise the party for making the big-spending status quo worse.”
However Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, a member of the House’s leadership team praised the legislation. “Despite divisions, both sides of the aisle have the responsibility to deliver this legislation for the American people so that the federal government runs efficiently and effectively,” Cole said. “Neither side got everything it wanted, but the end product reflects a broadly supported compromise. A majority of Republicans and Democrats voted for this bill. President Trump urged its passage and has promised to sign this legislation. As we begin to consider funding for Fiscal Year 2019, it is imperative that Congress remain committed to the return to regular order in the appropriations process.”
The president will decide in the next few hours whether or not he got enough of what he wanted.
(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports (Crossposted on Trahant Reports.)

Mark Trahant

Cross-posted on Indian Country Today.

UPDATE: The House of Representatives passed the $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations bill. Thursday.  The vote was 256-167. Next up: The Senate will vote on the measure.

Congressional leaders have agreed to a massive $1.3 trillion spending bill to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year. The House and Senate must still vote on the measure. The text of the 2,232 page bill was released Wednesday at 8 p.m.

The spending bill, which followed an overall agreement last month, increases spending for most domestic programs, including more than $3 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and $5.5 billion for the Indian Health Service. Other line items include increased funding for tribes for the research and implementation of the Violence Against Women Act and renewed funding for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the legislation also “fulfills our pledge to rebuild the nation’s military. We are delivering the biggest increase in defense funding in 15 years.”

That includes a pay raise of 2.4 percent for military personnel — and an increase of 1.9 percent for most federal civilian employees.

The legislation would significantly boost funding for programs that deal with the opioid epidemic. “With nearly $4 billion, the funding bill makes the largest federal investment to date for fighting the opioid epidemic, which the president has declared a national emergency,” Ryan reported on his House web page. “It includes funding for treatment, prevention, and law enforcement programs that help save lives and stem the spread of this scourge.”

The spending bill includes  $1.57 billion for President Donald J. Trump’s border wall as well as an increase for  immigration enforcement, including additional law enforcement.

The House could vote on the measure as soon as Thursday (waiving a requirement for members to get at least three days to review the language of the legislation).

The Senate vote could come Friday, however, one senator could slow the process down because of rules that require unanimous consent. This would result in another, short government shutdown at least over the weekend. Sen. Paul Rand, R-Kentucky, did just that last month.

He has not said what action he will take on this spending bill, but he tweeted this morning: “It’s a good thing we have Republican control of Congress or the Democrats might bust the budget caps, fund planned parenthood and Obamacare, and sneak gun control without due process into an Omni…wait, what?”

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

Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

Cross-posted on Indian Country Today.

Here we go again. Congress has three days to resolve long standing disputes over immigration, health care, taxes, abortion rights, guns, building a border wall, a New York City tunnel, and funding federal programs. Republicans control the House and the Senate, but still need votes from Democrats to enact any spending legislation.

Wait. Didn’t that all happen five weeks ago? Yes. Well, sort of. The Congress and President Donald J. Trump agreed to an overall two-year, $1.2 trillion plan for spending federal dollars. That plan gave Congress five weeks to work out a variety of details, setting a deadline of March 23 at midnight.

And, so, here we go again. It’s the details that continue to divide Congress.

House rules require 72-hour notice before a vote. The legislation has yet to be posted.Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, told The Hillnewspaper Monday that Congress is close. “They’re scrambling, working really hard to try to get them done so they can file tonight, or tomorrow at the latest.”

Federal Indian programs are not a part of the policy disputes in Congress, but many agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service would have operations suspended during a government shutdown. Indian education programs are funded in advance and would not be impacted. There have been two short government shutdowns this year.

Michael “Keawe” Anderson, executive director of the Native American Contractors Association, sent a note to members suggesting contract officers investigate the status of federal contracts, especially if there is a “soft” shutdown over the weekend. “However, given the uncertainty that has become our new norm, I would also add that you should discuss a longer term shutdown – a ‘hard shutdown’—and what their expectations would be,” wrote Anderson.

The National Congress of American Indians will testify Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs about the budget and the president’s drastic cuts. “Many of the proposed deep reductions in the president’s Budget threaten to limit this protection and these benefits,” the prepared testimony said. “The proposed budget cuts to tribal governmental services, if enacted, would represent a clear retreat from the federal commitments and treaty promises made to tribes.

The President’s budget would cut the Bureau of Indian Affairs by about half a billion dollars, or 15 percent. BIA Social Services would be reduced by more than a third, Indian Child Welfare by more than a quarter, and critical human services programs, law enforcement and courts programs, environmental protection, housing, and education programs would face unconscionable reductions. Infrastructure programs, such as the Indian Community Development Block Grant would be eliminated, and the Indian Housing Block Grant and road maintenance would be reduced.”

It’s unclear how much funding would be restored to federal Indian programs under any Omnibus bill. The February deal between Congress and the president significantly increased spending for defense and domestic programs, but the details have yet to be enacted into law.

Both the House and Senate will have to act and the president would have have to sign the measure.

Before that occurs, however, there are serious policy disputes that have yet to be resolved.

Congressional Republicans continue to press for funds to construct a border wall with Mexico. Rep. John Carter R-Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee, told The Wall Street Journal that he is continuing to push for $1.6 billion for the border wall. Democrats have said that spending might be possible — if the budget extended protections for the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. But there were still differences about a sharp increase for the U.S. Border Patrol.

Another issue splitting Democrats and the president was funding for the Gateway, a project to improve rail service in the New York City region. The president said he would veto any spending bill that included that $900 million project. (Many Republicans from New York and New Jersey support Gateway.)

Another complication: Abortion rights and health care spending. Senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, have proposed language that would reimburse insurance companies for low-earning customers (a requirement of the Affordable Care Act.)

President Trump told the two senators he supports the measure. However there is significant opposition in both the House and Senate. One provision would also add new abortion rights restrictions to dollars spent by insurance companies, something that Democrats say they could not support. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the abortion language conflicts with state laws in California, New York and Oregon.

Conservatives in the House say the spending proposals lack conservative “principles” and may voter against the legislation. Members of the House that support increased funding for the military have called for an end to short-term spending bills and want this process completed. Either one of those factors could complicate a last minute deal before a vote in the House and Senate.

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

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

 

Cross posted on Indian Country Today.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A special election in Pennsylvania is a good sign for Native American #NativeVote18 candidates running for office. Why? Because this cycle is already favoring out-of-power Democrats and, quite possibly, independents. It’s hard to peg any constituent group more out-of-power than those who would represent Indian Country in the Congress of the United States.

First, the news from Pennsylvania, then we will look at the map. Democrats are claiming victory in a special election for that state’s 18th Congressional District. Perhaps. Officially, the race is too close to call between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone. It’s a practical tie with Lamb holding a tiny lead. But Lamb has claimed victory and Democrats are celebrating no matter what happens next because this is a district that favors Republicans, it was won by President Donald J. Trump by 20 points. So even normally red districts are up for grabs come November.

Or as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (New Mexico) posted Tuesday night: ““These results should terrify Republicans. Despite their home field advantage and the millions of dollars … We have incredible candidates with deep records of service running deep into the map this year, and it’s clear that these Republican attacks are not going to stick.”

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Back to the map: Sharice Davids, who is running in Kansas fits that storyline precisely. She is running in a district that Republicans should win easy. Rep. Kevin Yoder won re-election in 2016 with an 11-point margin. But remember the Pennsylvania 18th favored Republicans by 20-points.

Davids is Ho-Chunk, an attorney, and she worked in the Obama administration. This is pretty much an anti-Trump-agenda resume’.

The most immediate boost from Tuesday’s vote should be more campaign donations.

Another #NativeVote18 candidate who could benefit from a re-imaging of the election landscape is Amanda Douglas in Oklahoma. After Lamb claimed victory in Pennsylvania she tweeted: “Yes! his is exactly what I’m talking about!!! I can’t wait to work with newly elected Congressman@ConorLambPA!”

Douglas, Cherokee, is running in the state’s 1st Congressional District. Two years ago Democrats did not field a candidate in that race. It’s rated as a “plus-17” Republican district — in other words, awful similar to the Pennsylvania 18th.

In another part of Oklahoma, two Cherokee Nation citizens could both potentially be on the fall ballot. Rep. Markwayne Mullin is running for his fourth term as as Republican. Democrat Jason Nichols, the mayor of Tahlequah, is running as a Democrat. Mullin won 70 percent of the vote in his last election bid.

Rep. Tom Cole is also running for re-election as a Republican in Oklahoma’s 4th congressional district. Cole, Chickasaw, also earned more than 70 percent of the vote in the last election.

One #NativeVote18 candidate who had a good week before the Pennsylvania election was running in New Mexico.

Debra Haaland, 2018 Elections

Haaland’s challenge is to win the Democratic primary in June because, unlike most Native candidates, she’s running in a district that favors Democrats.

Last weekend Haaland was the top-vote getter at the state’s party convention, winning nearly 35 percent of the vote in a crowded field. She told delegates: “Congress has never heard a voice like mine.”

Haaland, is Laguna Pueblo. Congress has never elected any Native American woman to its ranks since voting began in 1789.

Haaland, Davids, or Douglas could be the first.

The Pennsylvania race also raises questions for the #NativeVote18 candidates who are Republicans. Former Washington State Sen. Dino Rossi would be at the top of that list. Rossi, Tlingit, is hoping to succeed a moderate Republican, Rep. Dave Reichert, in Washington’s 8th congressional district. That district has been trending Democratic.

The president’s popularity is reflected by Rossi’s own words. He told The Seattle Times that he is “not running to be ‘The Apprentice.’ I am running to be the congressman from the 8th Congressional District. The way I am going to treat Donald Trump is just the same way I would have treated George W. Bush or Barack Obama. If I agree with them I agree with them, and if I don’t, I don’t.”

One #NativeVote18 candidate who is not running away from President Trump is Gavin Clarkson in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District. His campaign website proclaimed “the best way to help President Trump stop the swamp and protect New Mexico is to run for the Republican nomination to make sure we retain this Congressional seat in November.”

Then this Southern New Mexico district is changing too. The seat is now held by Rep. Steve Pearce is running for governor — making this an open seat. Pearce won easily, capturing 60 percent of the vote. But the district is now 54 percent Hispanic and in a wave election, it could be the ideal seat for a Democratic pickup. Trump won the district by 10 points, half of the margin in Pennsylvania.

There are also three #NativeVote18 candidates running as independents or on third-party lines. Eve Reyes Aguirre is running for the U.S. Senate in Arizona on the Green Party ticket. Aguirre is an Izkaloteka Mexican Native.

She recently tweeted that she is an “unconventional politician” and is rounding up signatures to make the ballot. Henry John Bear is running as a Green Party candidate in Maine’s 8th Congressional District. Bear is a citizen of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. And, finally, in Minnesota, Ray “Skip” Sandman is running in the 8th Congressional District as an independent. Sandman is Ojibwe.

Can an independent or third party candidate win in this environment? It’s hard to say, there is no real evidence yet. But as the Pennsylvania results show, this is an election cycle where anything is possible.

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

Mark-Trahant

Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

Many years ago Richard LaCourse and I would sit around and toss ideas about what the perfect Indigenous newspaper would look like. LaCourse, at the time, was trying to create a new publication in Washington, DC.

Imagination was his currency. What was possible?

LaCourse had a lot of experience answering that question. He had helped build the American Indian Press Association. He had edited or written for several tribal newspapers, including his own, The Yakama Nation Review. He launched a one-person crusade to raise the standards of Native American journalism.

I even remember the first time I heard him do that. It was on Feb. 24, 1977, at a workshop in Spokane. A workshop speaker was telling tribal editors that they worked for tribal councils and should slant the news accordingly. LaCourse stood up. Angry. Shaking his finger. “Are you aware of the 1968 law that guarantees freedom of the press in Indian Country? Indian newspapers should be professional, straight reporting operations, and your assumptions about cheerleaders for a point of view has nothing do do with the field of journalism. Why are you making this presumption?”

I am thinking of Richard LaCourse as we begin Indian Country Today’s third chapter. The goal is to build on the legacy of LaCourse—as well as from the first two chapters of Indian Country Today. The publication was founded by Tim Giago in South Dakota in 1991 and was followed by the ownership of the Oneida Nation of New York.

It’s hard to think of a better word than legacy, actually. The word is from the 14th century Latin legatus, an ambassador, envoy, a deputy sent with a commission. A century later the word had shifted and become associated with property, a gift. Both definitions fit. The gift is all of the work done before. The commission is the tasks ahead.

Indian Country Today is now owned by the National Congress of American Indians—but we will act independently. We are creating a framework to ensure that. But our primary task is the same as LaCourse’s vision: Professional, straight reporting that tells stories about Indigenous people and our nations.

I’d like to thank the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) for engaging in this experiment. It would have been easy to say, “well, no.” Especially when the challenges of independence are factored into that equation.

The NCAI has a long history of working with the Native press (even while our missions are different.) One of the great journalists of her generation, Marie Potts, a Maidu, and editor of California’s Smoke Signals best writing in Washington while on working on a fellowship with NCAI during the late 1960s.

The best way I know how to demonstrate our independence is to produce solid, thoughtful journalism. Every day. So there is a lot of hard work ahead. (And we will need some time to make this so.)

What does this mean for Trahant Reports? For the time being I will cross post on Trahant Reports and Indian Country Today sites. I have a lot of material I am working on for the elections ahead, Indian health, and other policy issues. So more, not less.

And Indian Country Today is back in business and we are ready to serve.

Our goal is to hire a team in Washington, create (and fund) reporting fellowships around the country, and build capacity for freelance contributors. We want to be partners, not competitors, with tribal newspapers, public media, and web publishers.

I have been teaching journalism for the past seven years and I am always telling students that this is a time of great opportunity. The digital world means that we can reach our audiences instantly. We can communicate ideas. We can explain a complicated process. We can expose wrongdoing. Or write a story about pop culture that makes us smile.

We can invent a new kind of news organization, one that trades on the currency of imagination.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports

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