Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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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