Here we go again: Another government closure is near

Once again Congress is finding it impossible to pass spending bills — and time is running out. The federal government appropriates money and runs its programs from October 1st through the end of September. The House and the Senate are supposed to enact appropriations and then pass on that legislation to the president for his signature.

That is how it is supposed to work.

But the entire process is chaotic. Think of Congress this way. There are really three-parties in the House and in the Senate; Republicans (the party in charge), Democrats and Tea Party supporters. It’s this third group who are holding up the budget by saying “no.” Congress could get out of this by letting Republicans work with Democrats on moderate spending bills — something that does happen in state Legislatures from time to time. And that might be the smartest route ahead. (It would likely mean the political career of Speaker John Boehner would be over. But it’s not a bad legacy to step out by doing the right thing.)

There are several issues dividing Congress ranging from the amount of debt the country has (think of a credit card limit) to how much money flows from government checks to Planned Parenthood.

That last item is the big one. Some conservative members of Congress say they will not support any budget that includes Planned Parenthood after a series of videos that purported to show the selling of baby parts.

But Planned Parenthood does many other things — such as distribution of birth control pills — and federal money already cannot be used for abortion. So it’s unlikely the president will agree to any budget that doesn’t continue funding women’s health programs and that includes Planned Parenthood. What’s more the whole controversy has been one-sided, there a case to be made that Planned Parenthood’s actions save lives. The issue is far more about abortion politics than it is about fetal tissue.

Back to the shutdown. Pretty much everyone in Washington says they do not want a government shutdown. But there is really no incentive to get beyond those words. Budget expert Stan Collender recently wrote in Politico magazine that there is a seventy-five percent chance of a shutdown. “First and foremost, there is not enough time to reach a deal. Not only have none of the fiscal 2016 appropriations yet been signed into law, none have even passed both the House and Senate. With less than two calendar weeks (and far fewer days of potential legislative work) to go, the only way to keep the government from shutting down will be for Congress and the president to agree on a continuing resolution to fund the government for a short time while a larger deal is negotiated,” he wrote. But then there is that Planned Parenthood debate — and staunch opposition to even a short-term spending bill.

Not only that but a temporary spending bill could cause additional problems. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says a Continuing Resolution would lock in spending cuts demanded by the sequestration law. “The only real fix is for policymakers to agree to provide relief from the sequestration cuts now scheduled for 2016, offsetting the cuts with alternate deficit reduction measures, as they did on a bipartisan basis in 2013, and then to enact regular appropriations legislation for 2016 (even if combined into one or more omnibus packages).  As long as the current sequestration limits remain in place, no amount of re-arranging the pieces within an inadequate total will allow for necessary funding levels to reflect new priorities, new conditions, or rising costs,” the Center said.

We know that closing down government, even briefly, is rough.Two years ago the government closed from October 1 through October 16, 2013. Some 800,000 employees were furloughed and another 1.3 million had to work without pay.

Across Indian Country a government shutdown not only impacts federal employees, but it means tribes have less money and have to lay off employees as well. Two years ago, Indian Country Today Media Network reported that Montana’s Crow Tribe had to lay off some 300 people as well as closing essential reservation programs. Even some health clinics (which are supposed to be protected) had to close temporarily.

Native American organizations have been pushing for an idea to fund health, and perhaps tribal schools, a year in advance. That would be smart. Then when Congress cannot do its job, at least Indian Country won’t have to suffer needlessly. But Congress didn’t get around to that idea either.

One thing for sure: Government shutdowns cost a lot of money. The last tab was about $24 billion.

So here we go again with another waste of time and money.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. 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.

ELECTION 2016: Indian Country’s best chance to win a Congressional seat

Navajo voters line up to cast ballots in both tribal and Arizona elections in November 2012.

(Photo by Jaynie Parrish)

Labor Day kicks off the campaign season for White House, Congress


Tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s email server? Donald Trump‘s obnoxious phrase of the week? Or Rand Paul argue the benefits of assimilation to American Indians and Alaska Natives? So much nonsense.

Yet this week is the unofficial start to the 2016 campaign. So we’ll be getting more debates, more absurd policy pronouncements and more theater.

And at the same time as the election contest picks up, we’ll also be witnessing a new round of idiocy from the United States Congress.

Congress has about three weeks left to fund the government. As President Barack Obama said over the holiday weekend:  “As always, the deadline for Congress to pass a budget is the end of September. Every year. This is not new. And if they don’t, they’ll shut down the government for the second time in two years. At a time when the global economy faces headwinds and America’s economy is a relative bright spot in the world, a shutdown of our government would be wildly irresponsible. It would be an unforced error that saps the momentum we’ve worked so hard to build. Plain and simple, a shutdown would hurt working Americans.”

This makes no sense because Indian Country will be disproportionately impacted by a government shutdown. I’ll have more to say about that soon.

But let’s swing back to the political season because the only way to improve Congress is to elect new people. We need members of Congress who are willing to be politicians and govern by making choices about the options ahead.

We should start by focusing where there are the most Native Americans: Arizona’s First Congressional District. There are twelve tribes located within this district, including the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation. (Navajo doesn’t have quite enough people for its own district, even if you include Utah and New Mexico.

Arizona’s first congressional district is the nearest thing to an American Indian majority district. (Arizona did all it could to prevent Native Americans from voting. It’s only been since 1970 when a court opened up election rolls.) The population of the district is 724,868; and 23.2 percent of that is American Indian. Four years ago that number was about 22 percent and unless the district lines change, those numbers will continue to rise.

Two Native women have already run for this seat, Mary Kim Titla in 2008 and Wenona Benally Baldenegro in 2012. Titla, San Carlos Apache, is now the executive director of the tribal youth organization, UNITY, INC. Baldenegro is a Navajo and a Harvard-educated attorney.

Both lost in the primary — and that’s the challenge for this district.

Statewide only 11.9 percent of those eligible cast ballots (and less than 29 percent of registered voters). But if the Native vote could turnout in higher numbers during primary elections, then the results will be different. That sentence is easy to write, and yet so difficult to do.

However in last the general election Native voters did turnout successfully. Some ten million dollars were spent trying to win this “swing” district for Republicans. It was the top House district for so-called “dark” money or third-party spending that ran mostly negative ads. Two groups alone spent roughly $2.6 million supporting Republicans, the American Action Network and Young Guns Network. But big money lost. The Native vote trumped and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick won re-election by rolling up significant margins in precincts with Native voters in Apache and Navajo counties.

However Kirkpatrick’s win stirs another issue and that’s the disappointment many feel after she supported the sneaky transfer of forest land for the Rio Tinto mine. (She’s now running for the U.S. Senate; Sen. John McCain is running for reelection and he engineered the mine transfer by attaching it to a must-pass bill.)

And that’s exactly why a Native candidate is needed. It will take about 35,000 votes to win the primary next August and probably about 120,000 votes to succeed in the general election.

Expect a lot of candidates to run because it’s an open seat. Roll Call lists the Arizona district as one of thirty “toss up” seats. There should also also be a long list of American Indian candidates for this race, there are lots of people who could put together the resources to win. This is the ideal moment for Arizona’s tribal communities to have a representative in Congress — and so every obstacle should be removed to make this so.

It’s time.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. 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.

Press skips the debate about tribal sovereignty in Alaska

President’s visit to Alaska is remarkable on so many levels. But what story do we tell?

Mark Trahant

President Barack Obama’s visit to Alaska was inspiring. I eagerly watched everything I could see online: The official restoration of the name Denali, his powerful words on the climate, his visits to Resurrection Bay, and his interaction with Alaska’s Native communities. I especially loved the Yup’ik dancing (and the president showing his moves).

But there is one story that’s missing from the national accounts of the president’s visit: the role of tribes in determining Alaska’s future. The president himself referred to this debate in several ways. The first mention was in his statement to tribal leaders when he said: “My administration also is taking new action to make sure that Alaska Natives have direct input into the management of Chinook salmon stocks, something that has been of great concern here.” Then a few sentences later he promised to follow up on “everything from voting rights to land trusts.”

Those last two words are the story that needs to be told. The president’s language was a bit off. It’s not land trusts, but land into trust. This issue goes far beyond the status of land; it’s about the nature of sovereignty in Alaska. It’s complicated but basically there are two competing narratives that need to be resolved into a single story.

One version says that tribes ceased to exist when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (or ANCSA) became law in 1971. This story says that Alaska is the primary vehicle for all government in Alaska. The state sets the rules for education, law enforcement, land use, etc., etc.

But there is another reading of this history. This narrative says ANCSA was primarily a land settlement act. It did create a different structure, such as establishing Native corporations, but it did not end the right of Native people to determine their own future.

This second story arc began shortly after ANCSA. As a Native American Rights Fund attorney Robert Anderson said in 1973:  “….our work in Alaska is really on the cutting edge of Indian Law. We are establishing for essentially two hundred tribes, that they are recognized on the same level as those in the lower forty-eight (states) and that they have all the powers and authority.”

That story has multiple chapters that include the recognition of those tribes by the federal government, the push for Native hunting and fishing rights as well as the management of fish and game, law enforcement, and the most recent episode, a debate about land into trust. It’s this last issue that’s hot right now and worth a state and national conversation.

A few days before the president’s visit, Alaska’s new governor pursued an appeal that would prevent the Interior Department from taking land into trust, thus creating “Indian Country.”

The case involves Native villages Akiachak, Chalkyitsik, Chilkoot Indian Association, the tribe in Haines, and Tuluksak. These tribes seek to govern on issues ranging from law enforcement to zoning. The same powers held by other tribes. Indeed, the recognition (and expansion) of tribal authority was one of the main recommendations by the federal Indian Law and Order Commission, a bipartisan presidential and congressional task force.

But that’s unacceptable to Alaska. Simply put: The State wants to block tribal sovereignty.

As the state itself said:

“When the federal government takes land into trust, it holds it for the benefit of an individual Alaska Native or a Tribe. It is the federal government’s position that this land becomes Indian country—a legal status that can be likened to an Indian reservation. Currently, Alaska has only one reservation—the Metlakatla Indian Community’s reservation on the Annette Islands Reserve. Indian reservations are generally exempt from state jurisdiction, including taxation, except when Congress specifically authorizes such jurisdiction.

“If lands are put into trust in Alaska, the exact scope of federal, state, and tribal powers on trust lands would be played out as specific factual scenarios develop. Alaska would retain some civil and criminal powers over trust lands because Alaska is a P.L. 280 state. But generally, the federal government has the power to manage tribal and individual land that it holds in trust. The federal government will potentially have powers to approve and cancel leases of tribal trust land; as well as to govern the leasing of mineral resources (including oil and gas), regulate certain fishing activities, manage timber resources, issue grazing permits, and deal with certain water rights and irrigation matters on trust land. And Tribes have jurisdiction over civil and regulatory matters occurring on trust land. Gaming can occur on certain trust land in accordance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

This is twisted. The state fears tribal authority. Then, this is not a new position. The one constant theme from the past four decades is that Alaska favors litigation over negotiation. And, when Alaska Natives win, the state appeals until every avenue is exhausted. This is a tired approach.

Indeed, since the Interior Department announced rules in December 2014 the state hasn’t had a formal consultation process about lands into trust, held public hearings or even set up informal town halls. This was the ideal time for a conversation about the future. (The state says it’s still talking. That’s rich. While we’re suing you, let’s negotiate, ok?)

What’s particularly disappointing about this chapter is that the new governor, Bill Walker, promised a different ending. I had a conversation with him during a public forum at the University of Alaska Anchorage last August where he said tribal-state relations would improve. And that’s been mostly true. The governor has been fantastic on many issues, especially the expansion of Medicaid. But on this big one, the future of tribes in Alaska, well, it’s back to court.

This is the story that the rest of the country needs to hear.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. 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.

FCC rule would redefine Indian lands in Oklahoma

Commission cites century-old map to identify “former reservation” lands

Perhaps the most powerful phrase in federal rule-making is “… and tribes.” Those two words require agencies to consult and consider the impact of any action on tribal governments and their citizens. When the process works well, it gives tribes a say in how the agency fulfills its mission.

Then not every federal agency sees consultation the same. Some government regulations are extraordinarily complicated and easily slip past a public debate that includes voices from Indian Country.

A case in point is the Federal Communications Commission and its rethinking of the rules for its Lifeline program. Lifeline began in 1985 as part of the break-up of the old AT&T telephone network. The idea was to make certain that poor people had access to telephones, essential tools for finding and keeping jobs, keeping in touch with family, or calling a clinic to make a doctor’s appointment. Of course the world has changed much since 1985. Many “home” telephones are now cell phones. And today that connection ought to include broadband access. As the FCC itself says: “Disconnected consumers, which are disproportionately low-income consumers, are at an increasing disadvantage as institutions and schools, and even government agencies, require access for full participation in key facets of society.”

Exactly. The nature of life in this digital age means that American Indians and Alaska Natives, no matter the geography or income, need to find a way to be connected. But even simple ideas run up against the complexity of history, governing during a partisan divide, and the challenges of defining tribal lands and sovereignty.

In recent years, critics of the Lifeline program say that it became a pipeline for fraud. Phone companies determined who was eligible and even filled out the subsidy paperwork. Denver CBS4 reported that some vendors used someone else’s food stamp cards as the identification to sign up for subsidized service. A Tulsa a telephone company owner  was sent to prison after being convicted of fraudulently selling consumers Lifeline service.

So in 2012 the FCC made substantial changes to the Lifeline program. The idea is to scale back the numbers of eligible consumers so that more resources will be available for new digital Lifelines.

According to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, those reforms resulted in some 6 million fewer households using the program, dropping from 18 million to 12 million in 2014.

The FCC says Oklahoma is a particularly thorny problem because the “data show that two-thirds of enhanced Tribal support goes to non-facilities based Lifeline providers, and it’s unclear whether the support is being used to deploy facilities in Tribal areas.” There was no real definition of Indian land in Oklahoma so practically anyone could cite that provision of the subsidy, a monthly discount of $9.25 on telephone bills plus up to an additional $25 a month subsidy for “residents of tribal lands” (depending on service costs). One FCC Commissioner said that because all of Oklahoma is considered Indian Country only 339 consumers out of 307,434 did not qualify for the special tribal lands subsidy.

So the FCC’s solution is to invent a new definition of tribal lands in Oklahoma.

Defining tribal lands is easy in a reservation setting. (Or at least it should be.) But it is far more complicated in Oklahoma, Alaska, Nevada, and other regions where the history is different.

It’s in that context that the FCC came up with its new rule that redefines tribal lands within Oklahoma based on a map of the state from 1870 to 1890 to identify “former” reservation lands. Only tribal citizens within those century-old boundaries will be considered eligible for the subsidy.

Brian Howard, a legislative analyst for the National Congress of American Indians, says the use of these maps are problematic because they’re not real boundaries. There is not even a map that can be plotted with Geographic Information Service data (GIS).

What’s more: This Oklahoma map has no statutory authority. It’s an invention of the FCC.

A second element of the FCC proposal carves out an exception within its own mapping system. The FCC says some tribal lands are too “densely populated” and that “is inconsistent with the Commission’s objectives.”

“What level of geographic granularity should we examine to apply any population density-based test?” The commission asked. It said other federal agencies do the same thing, citing the Department of Agriculture’s Food Distribution Program which excludes residents of cities and towns in Oklahoma that are larger than 10,000 people.

Nearly every federal programs treats Oklahoma, Alaska, and a few urban areas within Indian Country in Nevada and Arizona, in exactly the same manner as they would reservation lands.

In June in St. Paul, Minnesota, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution that called the FCC’s new definition unacceptable. NCAI said the FCC should instead consult with sovereign tribal nations to come up with a definition of tribal lands that “does not exclude urban, suburban, or high density areas within tribal lands.” A filing by NCAI this week before the FCC adds: “In light of this recommendation areas with high-population densities of tribal populations—like Tulsa, OK, Chandler, AZ, Anchorage, AK, and Reno, NV—should still be eligible for the enhanced tribal Lifeline subsidy. Tribal populations are mobile and often move to economic centers for jobs, but that does not always correlate into improved socio-economic circumstances for tribal members.”

The key thing to remember is that tribes were not involved with fraudulent subsidies for Lifeline. Those crimes largely came about because private telephone companies were helping people enroll as well as producing supporting documents. Yet instead of working with tribes to come up with a solution to the problem, the FCC has set in motion its new rule that weakens both tribal authority and control over boundaries.

NCAI strongly urges the FCC to consider the record of evidence regarding the disparate levels in access and affordability of telecommunications services on tribal lands,” NCAI said in comments about the rule. “While this rule-making is focused on transitioning the FCC’s low-income programs to support broadband service, it is critical to recognize that historical and ongoing shifts in technology and service have only increased the Digital Divide on tribal lands.”

Indian Country remains well behind the rest of the country when it comes to technology service.

But even more important than the technical details of this proposal, there’s the limited nature of  “…and tribes” as being a part of this rule making. Instead of asking for solutions, the FCC is inventing new law.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. This piece was produced in partnership with Native Public Media. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.