Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

So what is going on with Congress?

One Speaker of the House retires. Another says he’s in — until he’s out. And it’s hard to keep track of what all this means for Indian Country.

Let’s break it down.

As I have written before there are really three parties in Congress these days: Democrats, Republicans and a right-wing splinter group either called the Freedom Caucus or the Tea Party. On many issues the right wing votes and calls themselves Republicans. But not always. On some issues they think Republicans are wobbly and not conservative enough. Indeed, one of the reasons that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy decided to not run for Speaker of the House was a list of impossible demands from this caucus. Their position is that the House should give more power to rank-and-file members and let the committee process debate policy (instead of leadership). But it’s also about making certain that the House doesn’t let the Senate or President Obama dictate the outcome of key fiscal and policy issues.

The magic number in Congress is 218 votes. That’s the number of votes it takes to pass legislation (or for that matter) to elect a new Speaker. (That’s means you need at least some votes from two of three factions in Congress.)

How does this impact Indian Country? There are a few ways for this story to play out.

The best alternative is that the current Speaker of the House John Boehner will end his career working for the good of the country, pushing through difficult legislation such as the budget and a lifting of the debt ceiling. He can do this with a coalition of a few Republicans and many more Democrats. This is what occurred with the bill that funds the government through December 11. Only 91 Republicans voted for the bill, but it passed easily after 186 Democrats voted yea. This could be a model for getting things done.

Ideally Boehner would reach a deal with the Senate and the president and come up with a two-year budget deal. That would keep federal funding stable through the election.

Another way legislation can move forward in a divided House is through a “discharge petition.” That’s when a majority of members, Republicans and Democrats, sign a petition that requires a bill to go directly to the House floor. This bypasses the Speaker and committees. Right now enough members have signed a discharge petition to restore funding to the Export-Import Bank and that bill will be considered later this month.

That’s the optimistic scenarios. But there is another possibility and that’s for more chaos. The Freedom Caucus could get its way and there would not be enough votes to pass a budget or raise the debt ceiling. Shutdown politics.

We already know how bad a government shutdown is for Indian Country. But the debt issue could also have dire consequences.

The United States is able to borrow money at extraordinary rates, under 3 percent. But if the right wing gets its way and allows the U.S. Treasury to default, even for a moment, those rates will go up. Think about it this way: The payment of the debt is one budget item that’s non-negotiable. If interest rates rise, and debt costs go up, that’s automatic spending, and that money will likely come out of existing programs.

Net interest payments are already huge. According to the Congressional Budget Office: “Interest payments on that debt represent a large and rapidly growing expense of the federal government … climbing from $231 billion in 2014, or 1.3 percent of GDP, to $799 billion in 2024, or 3.0 percent of GDP—the highest ratio since 1996.”

As I said, big numbers. The chaos in Congress is about real policy choices — and the direction that’s chosen will impact Indian Country for decades to come.

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. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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