Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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.

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