Eleven words that should serve as a warning from the State of the Union

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(White House photo)

The state of democratic institutions

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

I skipped watching the State of the Union last night. That was the first time in, well, a couple of decades. There was really no reason to watch. I figured President Donald J. Trump would set out to be presidential in tone, but his words would largely be the more of the same.

It wasn’t a boycott on my part. I just didn’t care to listen. It’s so much less stressful to read the text later.

The State of the Union is a joint session of Congress. The House of Representatives is jammed with its members, the Senate, members of the Supreme Court, the cabinet, and invited guests. A fitting place for these eleven words said by the president: “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill …”

The topic was infrastructure. But the problem of Congress producing a bill should be the greater question.

Instead of watching the State of the Union I was reading about the Ancien Régime, the end of the monarchy in France, the time just before the revolution.

I am especially interested in the mechanics of the Estates General. This was a legislative body with no official power (the king held that). The First Estate was the clergy, the wealthiest community in France at the time, owning about ten percent of all the land and exempt from all taxes. The Second Estate was the nobility. Still rich. Just not as rich as the priests. At least on a per capita basis. (And did own about a third of all the country’s property.) The Third Estate was supposed to be everyone else, but in practice it was really the bourgeoisie, the merchants, the lawyers, the folks who had some money and some property.

At first each “estate” had an equal vote. But there were only about 10,000 members of the clergy, about 400,000 nobles, and 25 million people. So representatives that accounted for about 3 percent of the population could out vote the 97 percent.

The Estates General had one essential mission: Approve a budget. But for more than a decade that body could not find the votes.

The opening of the Estates General would have been a familiar scene to those watching the pomp of a State of the Union. “Louis XVI … as a peaceful king, he declared himself ‘the people’s greatest friend.’” Make France Great Again, right?

There are two things from that era that ought to be a concern in the United States. The absolute imbalance between representation in the legislature and the population. And the inability to come together and agree on a spending plan.

Two of the three bodies in the Estate General wanted to tax everybody else. The Third Estate, the people, knew that meant them.

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The Republican plan at least pretends to cut taxes for everybody (all the while growing the deficit beyond reason). But rich corporations (our version of the Second Estate) get permanent tax breaks while the majority does not. If you look at the data since the 1950s the Corporate Estate taxes have been shrinking dramatically. (The United States has mostly paid for these tax cuts by increasing the payroll tax, the money that comes out of our paychecks.)

Just before the Revolution, the French government was facing all sorts of fiscal problems. As French economists Thomas Sargent and François Velde wrote in the Journal of Political Economy that after wars (including the cost of the American Revolution) there was a call to cut government spending across the board. And tax revenues “grew too slowly, causing debt service to increase. By 1788, as in 1770 and during the Regency, the inexorable compounding of interest brought France to a fiscal crisis. France in the grips of some ‘unpleasant arithmetic.’”

There is unpleasant arithmetic in our future. Especially when Congress cannot reach a reasonable conclusion about spending. The richest country on the planet is budgeting over the course of a few weeks.

The other issue that ought to be a concern is the destruction of basic democracy. The Estates General was completely illogical (one-third, one-third, one third) and it eventually reformed so that the people had at least as twice as much representation as the church and nobles. But that system was still way out of whack.

That, too, is America. It’s not quite as bad. Yet.

“Americans are dreamers, too,” President Trump said when he talked about his ideas on immigration. That’s odd. Which Americans have access, politically at least, to those dreams?

There are 3.5 million citizens in Puerto Rico who cannot vote for Congress, the Senate, or president. There are less than 3.5 million citizens living in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota. Those citizens are represented by ten United States Senators and five members of the House of Representatives. And don’t get me started about California’s place in this mess. (It’s not democratic and it’s not fair.)

It’s not the electoral college. And it’s mostly not gerrymandering. The imbalance in the U.S. system of democracy is old and structural. It’s about geography and who gets counted as voters. (A problem that is sure to grow in the next census.) And on top of that state legislatures are working to make it harder to vote, even further limiting democratic representation.

The Economist this week published its index of democracies. “America sits in 21st place in the ranking, level with Italy. It remains a “flawed democracy” for the second year in a row,” the magazine said. The index uses index 60 indicators across five broad categories—electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties—and “concludes that less than 5 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy.”

Seems to me that would be a good goal for any State of the Union. “So tonight I am calling on the Estates General * cough* I mean Congress to produce a bill …” 

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire 

 

Indian Country needs a canon of stories; ‘Sovereignty’ is one we should add

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country needs a canon of stories. A collection of Memory that every child knows growing up. A reference guide to our shared history — as well as a reminder about what the fight is all about. I can think of so many stories that belong in our historical catalog: The real-life adventures of Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Brant, Chief Seattle, Geronimo, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Forrest Gerard, and the decades-long fight for the return of Blue Lake.

There are so many other stories that must be told. Mary Katherine Nagle’s new play, “Sovereignty,” is one of those.

Nagle is Cherokee. She’s a nationally acclaimed playwright, an attorney and a partner with Pipestem Law. She’s also director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program.

“Sovereignty” is a huge deal. It’s now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Think of it this way: It’s a Native narrative on the nation’s stage. All too often we get excited when we see a movie or a TV show that has one Native American character worth remembering. That’s cool. But we should really get excited about a work of art, in this case a play, when the author, the cast, and often the audience is Native. (That is something that Nagle has done often. Her play, “Sliver of a Full Moon,” is a good example of that last idea, writing for a Native audience. The inside story.)

Back to the play. “Sovereignty” tells two Cherokee stories, one historical, one modern.  The first story is about the Cherokee Nation in the tribe’s homelands and the actions of Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot (a nephew of Ridge) and Chief John Ross (as well their fictional descendants). This was a time of war: The state of Georgia was determined to remove the Cherokees one way or another. The state’s military, the Georgia Guard, was evil, violent and determined to remove the Cherokee people from their homeland. The Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the Cherokees but the government of Georgia ignored that. The state’s primary mission was annihilation.

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Opening night: Mary Kathryn Nagle author of the play, “Sovereignty.” (Arena Stage photo)

Nagle is literally an heir to this story. This is her family. Or, as Nagle recently said,  “One hundred and eighty five years ago, the federal government sitting in Washington, D.C., sought to eradicate the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation … At a time when many in the United States have been hurt and threatened by polarization and prejudice, I believe we can find healing in understanding how my grandfathers, and all of our Cherokee relations, survived one of the most polarizing episodes in American history.”

It was polarizing episode because the story is about Indigenous survival. And different ideas about how to make that so.

Nagle does such a great job of working the law into her plays — and “Sovereignty” is no exception. The concept of tribal sovereignty is a recurring theme. When I saw the play,  I overheard a couple remark about how sovereignty as a living, modern concept. Perfect.

But there is another angle for Indian Country and why I think this story must be in our canon; the power of dissent. So much of our history of leadership is about vision and consensus. Most of the great tribal leaders in the 19th and 20th century were successful because they conveyed their ideas to their tribal community and were able to get people to work together.  As Vine Deloria Jr. wrote: “In every generation there will arise a Brant, a Pontiac, a Tecumseh, a Chief Joseph, a Joseph Garry, to carry the people yet one more decade further.”

But not always. Every once in a while it’s the voice of dissent; the leader challenging consensus that carries the people forward. There are two great stories about why dissent is so important to Indian Country: That of the Ridges and Lucy Covington’s fight against termination. (She followed around a pro-termination Colville tribal council at public events to counter their narrative and then stirred up support for new leaders.)

I have my own take on the Ridge story, mostly through the framework of Elias Boudinot (who is in the play) the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. “As the liberty of the press is so essential to the improvement of the mind, we shall consider our paper, a free paper,” Boudinot wrote in the first issue. “The columns of this newspaper shall always be open to free and temperate discussions on matters of politics, religion, and so forth.”

It’s impossible to have a temperate discussion in a time of war. The head of the Georgia Guard, Col. C.H. Nelson, told Boudinot that he could not be prosecuted under Georgia law, but if the reportage about the Guard did not cease, Nelson would tie him to a tree and give him a sound whipping.

Boudinot responded with a series of editorials on the Guard and freedom. Boudinot wrote: “In this free country, where the liberty of the press is solemnly guaranteed, is this the way to obtain satisfaction for an alleged injury committed in a newspaper? I claim nothing but what I have a right to claim as a man— I complain of nothing of which a privileged white editor would not complain.”

The Cherokee leadership — led by Chief John Ross and the National Council — had its own issues with The Phoenix leading to Boudinot’s resignation. Ross was determined to remain in Georgia no matter the cost. One of those provisions would have been absolute Georgia authority over the Cherokee Nation.  “Removal, then, is the only remedy—the only practicable remedy,” Boudinot wrote in a letter to Chief Ross. “What is the prospect in reference to your plan of relief, if you are understood at all to have any plan? It is dark and gloomy beyond description. Subject the Cherokees to the laws of the States in their present condition?”

This is the sovereignty part of the story. The Ridges and Boudinot argued for a future Cherokee Nation. That meant signing the Treaty of New Echota and setting the stage for what became the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Major Ridge knew the price of this dissent. He said at the time: “I have signed my death warrant.”

Nagle’s play captures those powerful themes but it also does something that only an artist can do. She brings the Ross and Ridge families back together. She shows through the power of story how we’re all in this together. Still.

Sovereignty is at the Arena Stage through Feb. 18.

 

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire 

The federal government shutdown is a failure by Congress to govern

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Updated Sunday.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The government is in its official shut down mode. And it’s a fight that has been brewing for a long time. It’s complicated because there are several different congressional factions, think of them as mini-political parties, that have different goals.

Remember this: The Republicans are in charge. This process could have been resolved within the caucus — if the GOP leadership had the votes. Back in September. And that’s the main problem. There are not enough votes for an affirmative solution. It’s so much easier for one faction or another to say “no.” (The House did pass their latest, short-term version with the support of the so-called Freedom Caucus. But several Senators in the Republican camp are still not on board because that solution doesn’t send enough money to the military and still other senators are not happy with another Continuing Resolution for any additional spending.)

Democrats have not had much say in the government since the election of Donald J. Trump as president. Senate leaders have used budget rules designed to pass legislation with 51 votes. But this short-term spending bill does not qualify — at least for now. More on that shortly.

There are three things on the Democrats’ “must” list. They want domestic spending protected (remember, one GOP faction wants deep cuts into government spending). Party leaders have been successful doing this with every Continuing Resolution so far because the alternative is the Budget Control Act and that would require deep cuts to the military (as well as domestic programs). Because of this threat, the faction in Congress that supports more money for the military has been willing to work with Democrats.

Democrats also want funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP. That is a huge program for Indian Country (along with Medicaid) pays the health care costs for more than half of all American Indian and Alaska Native children in the Indian health care system.

The CHIP program is in the House Continuing Resolution. But, as the National Indian Health Board posted last week, the House bill “does contain a 6-year reauthorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program but does not include the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. This is a huge miss. The Special Diabetes for Program for Indians expires March 31. The ideal solution would be for the Senate to include both CHIP and the diabetes program in any deal that’s made with the White House.

The bill also does not fund Community Health Centers which could lose up to 70 percent of their budget.

The final sticking point for the Democrats is protecting the people who were brought to this country by their parents or other adults unlawfully as children. This issue is interesting because nearly everyone sees the value in finding a solution to the problem because the United States is their country in all but paperwork. Yet even the rhetoric is changing. A few days ago Republicans were talking about agreement on this point. Today the language is harsh, Republicans saying Democrats are trying to “protect illegal aliens.”

But the Senate bill that the president rejected was bipartisan. Immigration hardliners did not want the deal, even though it would have increased funding for the wall, because it was too lenient on Dreamers. The White House represents the most conservative element on immigration issues.

Of course none of these issues are new. But Congress has not had the votes to pass any plan. So the solution has been short-term spending bills. This government shutdown is about ending that stalemate, resolving the debates, and moving forward.

That said:  Don’t be surprised if another “deal” is another short-term pass. But the goal is to force Congress into a real debate. Big picture stuff. (Yeah, right. I know, but I had to write it anyway.)

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, told National Public Radio that he doesn’t think “anybody’s going to negotiate very seriously with a gun to their head.” He said one of the problems is the Senate and the dysfunction over the “rule of 60.” Because of that, Cole said, the Senate hasn’t passed a single appropriations bill. “They didn’t do a real budget this year. The House did.”

The rule of 60 is the power of the minority to call for a filibuster. It takes 60 votes to end debate. President Trump took to Twitter Sunday to call for an end to that Senate rule. “Great to see how hard Republicans are fighting for our Military and Safety at the Border. The Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked. If stalemate continues, Republicans should go to 51% (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget, no C.R.’s!”

Of course Indian Country (and the economy) will be hit hard if this shutdown lasts very long. Lots of families, both government employees and contractors, could lose a paycheck.

The problem is we really don’t know exactly how the Trump administration will manage this particular closure.  Some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Administration, are using year-end funds to continue operation. The White House has posted a round up of agency plans. But we will know about the direct impact next week.

During the last government shutdown, 21-days that started on December 16, 1995, and continued to January 6, 1996, all 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs  employees were furloughed; general assistance payments for basic needs to 53,000 BIA benefit recipients were delayed; and estimated 25,000 American Indians did not receive timely payment of oil and gas royalties,” according to the Congressional Research Service. The last time around furloughed employees were eventually paid. Eventually.

All told Standard & Poor’s estimated the U.S. economy lost $24 billion last time around.

The Indian Health Service and the Department of Interior posted planning memos in September about what is expected to happen. Basically: Many BIA employees will be furloughed, except for those that work in public safety or who are managers. However the Bureau of Indian Education will mostly continue working as normal.

Former Indian Health Service Director former IHS director Dr. Michael Trujillo told Congress that the government closure “caused considerable hardship within Indian communities. One result of staff furloughs was difficulty in processing funds for direct services and to contracting and compacting tribes so the delivery of health services could continue. Those staff that continued providing health services were not paid on time. Threats to shut off utilities to our health facilities and even to stop food deliveries were endured. We reached a point where some private sector providers indicated that they might not accept patients who were referred from Indian Health facilities because of the Federal shutdown.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

 

 

 

 

#NativeVote18 Candidate cards (sample)

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Question. Trahant Reports is producing cards highlighting #NativeVote18 candidates, every one on my list. Two years ago I did this and posted one a day on social media. I am wondering … if they were printed and sold, are folks interested in a complete pack? Or just on social media? Drop me a line.

So far … #NativeVote18 list includes fifty-plus running for state legislatures and 15 for Congress & statewide offices.

I am also interested in hearing from readers about color. Last election I developed a color for every state (usually based on something in the state flag). But some readers asked me to color code by party, Red, Blue, Green, etc. Thoughts?

Draft day: Working databases of #NativeVote18 national candidates

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TrahantReports

I finished the draft of my #NativeVote18 databases.
I have two. The first is Native candidates for Congress and statewide offices. I am stunned: There are fifteen people on this list, 7 Ds, 5 Rs, 2 Greens and 1 Independent. A candidate for governor and two Lt. Govs.

I am using Google fusion tabs — one is a spreadsheet, note cards, and a map.

https://www.google.com/fusiontables/DataSource…

So who am I missing?

Second list is candidates for state legislatures. There are retirements and term limited members who I have dropped … and a few newcomers. Total so far 46.

I know this is not all. And a few folks have yet to announce.

https://www.google.com/fusiontables/DataSource…

#NativeVote18 #LoveData #NotFinal #DRAFTDAY

#NativeVote18 Candidate in New Mexico is clear about supporting Donald Trump

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** Updated

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Gavin Clarkson is clear: He supports President Donald J. Trump. And he’s running for Congress because “the swamp is deep, the alligators, bite, and the taxpayers are getting ripped off every day.” He wants less regulation and more oil and gas development. And don’t get him started on what he dismisses as “fake news.” More on that, shortly.

Clarkson, a Choctaw tribal member, is running in the Republican primary for New Mexico’s second congressional district. The district is now represented by the state’s only Republican in Congress, Steve Pearce, who is a candidate for governor. It’s a crowded field. There are at least four Republican candidates and a half dozen Democrats. (Two of the Republicans have already raised nearly a half million dollars between them.) The filing deadline comes up in March and the primary is in June. The district is 5.5 percent Native American, and includes the homelands of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, and the Zuni, Laguna, Isleta Pueblos. A small portion of the Navajo Nation and Ft. Sill Apache are also included.

This is a fascinating district. It’s huge, the largest congressional district in the United States that’s not a single state district, such as Alaska or Montana. It’s also considered a “lean Republican” district by about five points. And Trump did carry the district, but he only barely reached 50 percent of the vote. Obama won over the same voters in his last race.

It’s also a district that is changing demographically. Pew Research says only 40 percent of Hispanics in the district are now eligible to vote, but potentially that number could soon top 56 percent. That would be a game changer and the current divide over childhood arrivals and immigration reform could exacerbate that shift.

Clarkson has served in the Trump administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. He is a business professor at New Mexico State University. And says he’s the first Native American to earn a PhD from the Harvard Business School.

His short stint at Interior was focused on modernizing the Indian trader regulations.

However Clarkson’s role become controversial after an Inspector General released a report that said stronger “internal controls” were needed over the management of Indian loan program guarantees. ProPublica and The Washington Post reported that Clarkson resigned after the report — something he calls “fake news.” That’s harsh. After reading the stories, it’s clear that someone at Interior had said he had resigned. There is a source there. Two different news organizations would not independently make that fact up. And Interior would not comment on the record, only saying it was a personnel matter.

The issue involves a $22.5 million loan guarantee for an enterprise of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe that the Inspector General said did not meet guidelines and the deal “went south.” Clarkson blamed Lois Lerner, then an IRS official, for changing the rules. But reports from the Inspector General and from Human Rights Watch cite a the lack of internal control and a fiscal shell game. The Inspector General report said: “Appropriate controls are important due to the level of risk of this Program. Between 2010 and 2016, DCI paid approximately $12.4 million in claims resulting from defaults, and received an additional claim for approximately $20 million, which had not been paid at the time of our review. As of September 30, 2016, DCI was potentially liable for $606 million in guaranteed loans. Should any of the borrowers default on these loans, it is ultimately taxpayers who would carry the burden of bailing out the lenders since their obligations are guaranteed by the U.S. Government.” 

Clarkson said he did not personally profit from this venture nor did not resign from the Interior Department until the end of this year. And then, he said,  it was to run for Congress. “The story spiraled out of control,” Clarkson said. He said the department said he could not comment, or correct the record, only told to “suck it up.” Now that he is out of government, however, he said he can tell his side of the story.

** Update. The IG report said:  “Finally, the company’s business plan relied on an expectation of a favorable tax ruling from the Internal Revenue Service, which it did not receive.” However a 2008 letter from the IRS does say the business plan could raise capital based on an exemption from federal taxes. That, Clarkson said, was later reversed by Lerner.

And in his news release announcing his candidacy Clarkson went on the attack. After exposing “Lois Lerner’s racist practice of conducting IRS audits of tax-exempt bonds thirty-two times more often against tribes than state and local governments,” Clarkson said he was able to convince one of Lerner’s subordinates to admit the IRS’s wrongdoing and change its policy. “Lois Lerner retaliated by pulling the rug out from under my initiative to leverage capital gains tax treatment to attract outside capital investment into tribal economies. She changed the rules in the middle of the game, ignoring the plain reading of a statute, just like far too many activist judges do.”

Clarkson said he is running as a conservative and a lifelong Republican. He said his advocacy of tribal sovereignty is not a partisan issue and he will have support from tribes, individual Indians, and the oil and gas industry.

I asked Clarkson about climate change. He said he’s not convinced it’s necessary to destroy the economy to take action. “I fully support the president for pulling out of climate deal,” he said. We have to “do what’s best for America.” Translation in the Trump era: Do what’s best for gas and oil.

To me,  doing what’s best for America means to take climate change seriously and to act accordingly. Clarkson told me as a “scientist” he’s skeptical. However his resume reports that he was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the dynamics of tribal finance. His expertise is not in climate science, but economics.

This is important because it’s misleading to say that the science is not there when it comes to climate change. It’s a political talking point and nothing more. One of the standards of academic research is the peer review process. According to a recent roundup of scientific studies by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” My point here is that to say, “the evidence is not there,” is an attack on the scientific process (which is exactly why the Trump administration is so keen to make research less rigorous).  

The other issue I asked Clarkson about was Medicaid. Nearly every Republican plan in Congress pushes the idea of turning Medicaid into a block grant program for states. Clarkson said in an email: “I firmly believe that Medicaid is a critical program and must be improved by making it less bureaucratic. I believe that Medicaid has become too costly and complex for states to effectively manage, and it is already the biggest item in state budgets and is projected to absorb as much as 80-100 percent of all state revenues if left unreformed.”

He said he supports the Navajo Nation’s efforts to assume Medicaid responsibility for on-reservation members.

“The nation’s most disadvantaged, including many needy children, deserve an efficient health care program that will continue to provide essential services,” Clarkson said. “If Medicaid is left as it is currently, there will be no safety net for the poor in the future.”

I, too, would not leave Medicaid as it is. I would expand it. It’s more cost effective (yes, cheaper) than private sector health care. But more important Medicaid has become essential to the Indian health system.

There are four Native American Republicans running for Congress. Representatives Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin from Oklahoma. Dino Rossi in Washington state. And now Clarkson.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

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How much does climate change cost? Try $1.5 trillion and counting has only started

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Dominica’s capital of Roseau in the days after Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Timothy Fishleigh, Caapi Cottage Retreat Center.)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration, and its allies in Congress, are fighting a losing war. They continue to press forward for the development of oil, gas, coal, when the rest of the world understands the implication of that folly. Global warming is the most pressing issue for our time. Period.

The thing is governments really have two choices when it comes to managing the impact on its peoples from global warming: Spend money on trying to reduce the problem; or spend money on cleaning up the catastrophes.

The Trump administration is on the hook for the catastrophe. A report released Monday by The National Centers for Environmental Information pegged the total cost this year at $1.5 trillion, including estimates for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. (And that doesn’t even begin to count the human toll, lost lives, lost jobs, lost opportunity.)

I witnessed first hand the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island of Dominica last month. We keep hearing stories about the power grid being down (similar to Puerto Rico) and you think, why? It’s been months. Why aren’t the lights on? Then you see nearly every electrical pole on the island sideways. The entire grid needs to be rebuilt (or better, rethought) and that’s decades of infrastructure. So the figure of $1.5 trillion is far short of what will be needed. Nearly every electrical line, every other house, the damage was so widespread it’s impossible to overstate. And that’s just one island. Multiple the effect across the region. The planet.

Even the United States.

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The Centers for Environmental Information says there were sixteen weather and climate disasters  with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the country last year. These events included one drought, two flooding events, one severe freeze, eight severe storms, three cyclones, and one extraordinary wildfire. These “events” as the center defines them resulted in 362 deaths.

Turns out 2017 was a record-breaking year. “In total, the U.S. was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events tying 2011 for the record number of billion-dollar disasters for an entire calendar year,” the report said. “In fact, 2017 arguably has more events than 2011 given that our analysis traditionally counts all U.S. billion-dollar wildfires, as regional-scale, seasonal events, not as multiple isolated events.More notable than the high frequency of these events is the cumulative cost, which exceeds $300 billion in 2017 — a new U.S. annual record.”

A similar report was published by the Government Accountability Office including a recommendation that Executive Office of the President “identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”

But instead of trying to reduce the impact — and the costs of weather-related catastrophe — the Trump administration continues on course for new development of oil and gas. The Interior Department announced new rules that, if enacted, will open up nearly all of the United States coastal waters to more oil and gas development beginning next year.

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” said Vincent DeVito, Counselor for Energy Policy at Interior in the news release. “This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it: “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”

Dominance is such a funny word. How can any nation be dominant in the face of hurricanes that are ever more powerful and destructive? How does energy dominance work when tens of thousands of Americans will have to move because their homes are no longer there because of fire or storms? What happens if that number grows into the hundreds of thousands? Millions? How can we afford to spend trillions of dollars rebuilding what we have now?

A group of elders on the Bering Sea immediately condemned the Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. “We told them that in person last October and again in writing, that there were 76 tribes in these regions opposed to this,” said the statement from the elders. “The draft plan implies that Bering Sea communities were ‘generally supportive of some’ oil and gas activity. This is not accurate and there is no evidence of this from Bering Sea communities. For decades, our people have opposed oil and gas activity and we continue to oppose it today. The northern Bering Sea is a very fragile ecosystem. The marine mammals that we rely on use it as their highway and they follow specific migration routes. That is how we know when and where to find them. The noise and vibration associated with drilling will interfere with their sonar and disrupt their migrations. Then we the coastal people will lose our primary food source.”

There is a connection between developing oil and gas and paying the high costs to clean up after a storm. One side of the ledger goes to a few; the oil and gas “industry.” The folks who bought and paid for this administration.

The other side of the ledger is the rest of us. The taxpayers who will foot the bill for this continued folly.

And on the Bering Sea? The folks who live there are one storm away from a tragedy. As the elders put it: “Our people and our way of life are being exposed to danger and we do not understand why.”

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

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

Trahant Reports is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

 

 

First, do no harm. What it takes to manage the Indian health system

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Robert Weaver, Quapaw, is President Donald J. Trump’s nominee to head the Indian Health Service. Weaver’s background is insurance, not health care delivery. (Weaver Group photo)

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

What qualifications are needed to manage (and possibly reform?) the Indian health system? It’s Indian Country’s largest employer with more than 15,000 on the payroll and many, many more people who work in health care for tribes, non-profits and other related agencies. The IHS budget is $6.1 billion. Yet it’s also the least funded national health care delivery system, operating in a political atmosphere where critics ask, why can’t it do more?

The Wall Street Journal published a story last week that raised questions about Robert Weaver, the Trump Administration’s nominee to head the Indian Health Service. The Journal challenged Weaver’s history at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., from 1997 to 2006. However it quoted Jennifer Talhelm, an HHS representative, saying “any suggestion Mr. Weaver is unqualified to run IHS is a pure act of character assassination.”

Weaver is a member of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma.

A few facts: Weaver will be the least educated director of the Indian Health Service ever. If confirmed, Weaver will the tenth permanent director. All but one prior to Weaver have been physicians, most with multiple degrees in public health, science, and health administration. One former director, Robert McSwain, was not a medical doctor, but he was a longtime health manager and holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California. On his CV, Weaver lists his education at Missouri Southern State University in International Business with an emphasis in Marketing and Accounting; Minor in Spanish; Minor in Vocal Music & Piano. However the Journal reported that he was seeking a degree and did not graduate.

Weaver’s background is insurance. In a September 2016 profile in Native Oklahoma magazine, Weaver said, “We have Native Americans who are brilliant — geniuses — at gaming, but where are the Native American geniuses at insurance? It’s the second-largest cost we pay other than payroll. Yet it just goes to the wayside.” He told the magazine that his business saved the Quapaw Tribe more than $5 million a year.

“I try to be a translator for tribal leaders to understand this convoluted, difficult-to-understand, most of the time full of lies and deception industry, into ‘this is what it is. This is what your choices are.’ I get it,” he told Native Oklahoma.

Perhaps the Indian Health Service should be led by someone with an insurance background. It would surely help if the agency could come up with a better funding model, including a mix of insurance funds (third-party billing in IHS-speak.)

But there are three problems that ought to be clearly addressed through the Senate confirmation process.

First there is the problem of scale. Weaver would jump from managing a $10 million a year small business — one where he can hire and fire at will — to running a $6 billion agency where personnel decisions are made by folks higher in the chain of command at the Department of Health and Human Services or even as a favor to a United States Senator. And firing? Just one such action could take up more time than the three years left in this administration. And that’s the easy stuff. The agency’s operations are complicated by Congress, law, regulation, tribal relations, the Veterans Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance.

To his credit, Weaver has been outspoken about the underfunding of the Indian health system. (Question: Will he say so again in his confirmation testimony?) In a paper he wrote a year ago, Weaver said: “Healthcare is a treaty right for all Native Americans. The method of delivering healthcare for Native Americans is the Indian Health Service system established through the Federal Government. The Federal Government allocates funds to the IHS system each fiscal year. This allocation has been and continues to be inadequate to meet the healthcare needs of Native Americans. Currently it is underfunded by thirty billion dollars annually.”

That figure of $30 billion would eliminate the funding disparity for Indian health. (The National Congress of American Indians has published a plan to make that so over a decade.)

The second problem is how to articulate the Indian health story. This is a problem of “duality,” two competing ideas. On one hand you have some significant health and management problems such as those identified in the Great Plains by The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand you have a system that is innovative and includes models of excellence (such as clinics in the Pacific Northwest or the Alaska Native Medical Center.) One story is told. The other less so. I am convinced that a fully-funded system will only happen when we tell both stories. The narrative of failure is not an incentive to invest more money.

The third problem is the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Weaver wrote that the law works for Native Americans but overall it was a failure. “We now see that it did not provide health insurance for the forty million uninsured Americans identified as the target market in 2008, it is not affordable for those who were pulled into the ACA system, and the out of pocket maximums associated with the plan effectively make access to healthcare unattainable,” he wrote. The first part of that sentence is factually incorrect. The uninsured rate dropped from 20.5 percent in 2013 to 12.2 percent in 2016, a 40 percent decline. You can argue about the cost of that insurance, but it’s complicated because the ACA required minimum standards for insurance, covering such things as women’s health. All of the Republican plans are designed to save money by getting rid of those standards.

Of course in the Trump era there’s probably not a candidate for any public office who champions the ACA.

But I also don’t see any Medicaid experience in Weaver’s background and that is an expertise area that is critical. Some of the medical, treatment, and ethical issues are extraordinarily complex. They will require a solid team to help consider all of the alternatives that have life and death consequences. (So, if confirmed, he’ll need a lot of help.) Oklahoma is not a Medicaid expansion state, so there would not be a lot of experience in squeezing every dollar from Medicaid by making more people eligible or rethinking the coding of costs. The public insurance of Medicaid (and Medicare) now total $1.05 billion of the IHS budget, but it could be a lot more.

Weaver could use his expertise to help tribes improve insurance for tribal members and employees — and that could boost funding for IHS. Private insurance is now only about $110 million of the agency’s revenue.

So what are the qualifications necessary to run the Indian health system? I have a bias. I have met some of the great physicians who ran the agency. I remember Emery Johnson’s passion and thoughtfulness about what IHS could be. I’d even argue that IHS has had remarkable leadership since its founding. So the standard, for me, at least, is quite high. There are also two Native women who have run state health agencies — an ideal background for managing the IHS. There is a lot of talent out there.

But the Trump administration likes the idea of shaking up government. And, appointing someone to run the IHS with a very different background, does just that. Perhaps Weaver brings a new way of thinking and managing. Then again we would do well to remember the latin phrase that medical doctors learn early in their training, Primum non nocere. It means: First, do no harm.

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

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18 #IndianHealth

Trahant Reports is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

(Note: I use the phrase, Indian health system (lower case) unless I am specifically talking about the agency. My reason is that the narrative of a government-run health care agency, the Indian Health Service, doesn’t reflect what most of what the agency does now. The funding mechanism that supports tribes and non-profit health care agencies is the largest part of the system.)

 

Whiteboard: What I’m working on.

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One thing about writing in the Trump era … there is no shortage of ideas.

I am fascinated by latest reports about Robert Weaver and his qualifications spurred by a story in the Wall Street Journal. An HHS spokeswoman told the Journal that “any suggestion Mr. Weaver is unqualified to run IHS is a pure act of character assassination.” (Another version here and here.)

But what are the qualifications to run a massive health care delivery system; a $6 billion plus agency that represents a huge chunk of Indian Country’s economy?

I am also interested in the new oil and gas leasing rules & I wonder if that will be an issue in Tara Sweeney’s nomination to be the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at Interior.

More candidates have announced … time to update my #NativeVote18 list and profiles. — Mark

Make 2018 the year we fight about policy (instead of tweets from Donald J. Trump)

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Correction: The chart I originally published was misleading. The CBO score for the tax bill (and most of the other measures) looks at the cost over ten years. Appropriations are made in a single year. So that made the tax bill appear more costly in visual form. I am working on a new version now, something that illustrates the downward pressure on federal spending but uses an apple-to-apple comparison. (I also added a sentence in the report below to stress that the tax cuts are measured over a decade.)

Funny thing: I was so intent on getting the area of the bubbles correct that I completely spaced the CBO’s measure of ten years as opposed to a single year for appropriations.

Damn.

Two take aways. First. I still want to illustrate, visually, the downward pressure on the budget. The balloons I used were misleading, but the point remains the same. The pressure to cut is going to grow in intensity. Second: The reconfigured bubbles (which take up too much space because of their relationship) really show the problem of entitlement spending, such as Medicaid. That’s a whole different topic … but visually, wow.

 

Elections should be fought over policy not nonsense

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Elections in America are usually fought over nonsense. Trivial topics. Stuff that grabs headlines. Or issues that remind voters why they are in Political Party A or B. (And for good measure there is always contention about the personality of a So So Candidate who does (or does not) connect with voters.)

Nonsense.

This problem is particularly acute in the Trump era. The recent news cycle pits President Donald J. Trump versus Steve Bannon. The White House statement that Bannon “lost his mind” is attention grabbing. Our political minds want to know what this means for the next election and the Trump coalition (which still defies logic because it subtracts supporters, rather than reaching out and finding new ones).

But politics ought to be more about policy. What choices are being made in our name? What’s the best way to improve the lives of children, the next generation? How do we invest public resources, that means tax dollars, into making life better? These are questions that get far less attention than the latest presidential tweet.

Then the president and Congress have already set the rules for this debate when they passed tax cuts. Now, every act of Congress, every budget from the administration, will set out to justify (and pay for) that law.

This is the problem: The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the  federal deficits will increase to $1.8 trillion over the next decade. “As a result of those higher deficits, debt held by the public would increase from the 91.2 percent of gross domestic product in CBO’s June 2017 baseline to 97.5 percent,” CBO said. That means that the annual budget deficit will be nearly equal to the entire economy.

But CBO is on the conservative side of this argument. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget warns that after adding interest costs the tax plan would be enough to “increase debt to 111 percent of gross domestic product … That would be higher than any time in U.S. history, and no achievable amount of economic growth could finance it.”

A federal debt that’s bigger than the entire economy. And, key phrase here, “no achievable amount of economic growth could finance it.”

Already leaders of the Congress — the same bunch who did proposed this tax legislation — are now saying the country cannot afford to spend money on social programs.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (who is soon to retire) said he was one the earliest sponsors of the Children’s Health Insurance Program“I invented it,” he said on the Senate floor. He says he doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t support its reauthorization. Yet. So he preaches that this country must live within its means.

Congress gave corporations a tax break worth $1.3 trillion. And another $425 billion was rewarded to small businesses that pay their taxes on individual returns (so-called pass through taxes). On top of that (for desert, perhaps) the Congress gave the very wealthiest, those few who pay estate taxes on inherited wealth, a break worth $83 billion. Even though those numbers reflect a decade of revenue, it still means that many in Congress say there is not enough money to fund the government.

That’s a rotten framework. But it’s more complicated when you add one more layer: The Budget Control Act of 2011. That law was passed to limit Congress’ power to spend freely. It sets in place budget caps for domestic and defense spending. If the caps are exceeded, then an automatic sequester (remember that?) kicks in unless Congress passes a waiver. That deal linked spending for defense and domestic programs.

Now it’s a problem because the Republicans want to spend a lot more money on the Pentagon. They want that part of the budget to go up. But because it’s linked to domestic programs — such as those that impact Indian Country — that cannot happen without an agreement with the Democrats. Wednesday the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate met to try and make that happen. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described the meeting as  “positive and productive.”

Democrats, for once, have some power to bargain. More spending for defense cannot happen without their votes. (Republicans remain divided over all federal spending.) So Democrats are trying to see how much leverage they have and over what issues. It’s likely that domestic spending will be a part of any deal, and possibly the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Several Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have said they will not vote for any budget unless it includes a provision to protect immigrants who were brought to this country as children, the so-called Dreamers. (President Trump removed Obama-era protections for this group and it’s a moral imperative for Democrats (and many Republicans) to protect some 800,000 people from deportation. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, began under President Obama.)

That’s a huge agenda. It’s likely that Congress will again push it forward past its deadline of Jan. 19. Even if there is a deal, say today, then the actual writing of the budget will have to go back to the Appropriations subcommittees to be put into legislative language. That will take time.

Federal spending on Indian Country ought to be in a different category, one that does not yet exist. There should be a line item for treaty obligations. Should.

So far the budget numbers are hard to know for federal Indian programs. The Trump administration’s budget was largely ignored. And the House and Senate committee numbers look lean, but fine. But the thing is until there is an actual deal, none of these numbers matter. After a deal each committee will have to go back and determine what money can actually be spent. If it’s a good deal, the numbers will stay the same or even improve. The alternative? No words.

Of course the bigger issue in Congress is about priorities. This Congress has already decided that tax cuts are the most important thing that had to be done. So every fight over the budget has to somehow go through that filter. There is not enough money because Congress is giving corporations $1.4 trillion so they can be more competitive and profitable. (Funny: thought they were both.)

As economist William G. Gale wrote for the Brookings Institute: “… tax cuts are not free; they eventually have to be financed with higher taxes or lower spending. And once those financing requirements are taken into account, most low- and middle-income households are likely to be worse off than they would have been without the tax cut in the first place.”

Worse off. Then Indian Country knew that before the tax bill ever reached the president’s desk.

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

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

Trahant Reports is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here.