Trump complains. And signs the business-as-usual spending bill into law anyway

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President Donald J. Trump speaks about the $1.3 trillion Omnibus Spending Bill before signing into law. (Official White House photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Indian Health, Bureau of Indian Affairs see a budget increase

Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

The federal government’s newly enacted budget is a massive “omnibus” act that spends $1.3 trillion and makes some members of Congress pleased and others angry. It’s a document that reflects a broken budget system. And, at the same time, it’s a business-as-usual document in a presidential administration that has promised structural change.

“There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about,” President Donald J. Trump told reporters at the White House Diplomatic Reception room. “But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. Nobody read it, it’s only hours old.”

But the negotiations were not hours old. The back and forth between Democratic and Republican lawmakers was essentially a year late. This spending bill only funds the federal government between now and the end of September. But the process took so long because neither side had enough votes to pass the document on their own; Republicans needed votes from Democrats and to get those votes there had to be deals. Lots of deals. Business as usual.

And business as usual is good for Indian Country. Federal Indian programs, some of which had been slated for either elimination or deep cuts, continued on course.

The omnibus spending bill increases funding for the Indian Health Service by 10 percent, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education by 7 percent to $3.064 billion. The IHS budget line s $5.5 billion. When the budget is compared to the president’s request, the increases are even sharper, more than 16 percent for the IHS and 23 percent for the BIA.

At the BIA, according to an analysis by Amber Ebarb at the National Congress of American Indians, “Overall, the eliminations and reductions proposed in the president’s budget were rejected.”

Other budget items:

  • The bill includes a 3 percent set aside for Indian tribes within the funds available under the Victims of Crimes Act. The cap for these funds was set at $4.4 billion, which amounts to $133 million. As Ebarb wrote: “This is an important step forward for Indian Country, which has the highest rate of criminal victimization and had up until this point been left out of this funding. This funding will address the long standing inequity and meaningfully improve the landscape of victim services in Indian Country.”
  • The bill provides $50 million for grants to Indian tribes or tribal organizations to address the epidemic, and $5 million for tribes in the Medication-Assisted Treatment for Prescription Drug and Opioid Addiction program.
  • Infrastructure spending would increase for BIA and IHS construction, BIA road maintenance, and a $100 million competitive grant program is added under Native American Housing Block Grants in addition to the $655 million provided for the NAHBG formula grants.

 

President Trump said he signed the bill into law because it increased military spending. “I looked very seriously at the veto. But because of the incredible gains that we’ve been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our thinking.”

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports (Cross-posted on TrahantReports)

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Congress set to vote on $1.3 trillion spending bill; Friday deadline

Mark Trahant

Cross-posted on Indian Country Today.

UPDATE: The House of Representatives passed the $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations bill. Thursday.  The vote was 256-167. Next up: The Senate will vote on the measure.

Congressional leaders have agreed to a massive $1.3 trillion spending bill to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year. The House and Senate must still vote on the measure. The text of the 2,232 page bill was released Wednesday at 8 p.m.

The spending bill, which followed an overall agreement last month, increases spending for most domestic programs, including more than $3 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and $5.5 billion for the Indian Health Service. Other line items include increased funding for tribes for the research and implementation of the Violence Against Women Act and renewed funding for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the legislation also “fulfills our pledge to rebuild the nation’s military. We are delivering the biggest increase in defense funding in 15 years.”

That includes a pay raise of 2.4 percent for military personnel — and an increase of 1.9 percent for most federal civilian employees.

The legislation would significantly boost funding for programs that deal with the opioid epidemic. “With nearly $4 billion, the funding bill makes the largest federal investment to date for fighting the opioid epidemic, which the president has declared a national emergency,” Ryan reported on his House web page. “It includes funding for treatment, prevention, and law enforcement programs that help save lives and stem the spread of this scourge.”

The spending bill includes  $1.57 billion for President Donald J. Trump’s border wall as well as an increase for  immigration enforcement, including additional law enforcement.

The House could vote on the measure as soon as Thursday (waiving a requirement for members to get at least three days to review the language of the legislation).

The Senate vote could come Friday, however, one senator could slow the process down because of rules that require unanimous consent. This would result in another, short government shutdown at least over the weekend. Sen. Paul Rand, R-Kentucky, did just that last month.

He has not said what action he will take on this spending bill, but he tweeted this morning: “It’s a good thing we have Republican control of Congress or the Democrats might bust the budget caps, fund planned parenthood and Obamacare, and sneak gun control without due process into an Omni…wait, what?”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports

Trump budget is a ‘messaging document’

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National Economic Council discusses White House infrastructure plan. (White House photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Budgets are statements: This is what “we” care about.  It’s money that reveals priorities. The “we” could be, and ought to be, the country. Or the “we” could be a presidential administration that’s not really equipped to govern. So there will be lots of stories this year, like last year, about the Trump’s administration’s desire to cut federal Indian programs, wipe out public broadcasting, end student loan forgiveness, wreck Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing programs, and generally just about every federal program that serves poor people.

As Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters: “This is a messaging document.”

And what a message: Rich people face tough times so they deserved a huge tax cut. Poor people are poor because of their own failures. And more money is needed for a wall that’s not needed, for the largest military in the world, and the Republicans no longer believe that deficits matter.

But Mulvaney has a different version. Here is what he says are the messages.

“Number one, you don’t have to spend all of this money, Congress.  But if you do, here is how we would prefer to see you spend it,” he said. “And the other message is that we do not have to have trillion-dollar deficits forever.”

Ok. So the action is in Congress. Even Republicans on Capitol Hill know that this budget cannot be. It’s chaos as numbers.

Perhaps the best line of nonsense was written a line written by the budget director to House Speaker Paul Ryan saying domestic spending at the levels Congress has already approved would add too much to the federal deficit. That’s funny.

For this budget to become law (and overwrite the current spending bill) the House and Senate would have to agree to a budget. That’s unlikely. As I have written before there are lots of votes against any budget but not enough votes to pass any budget. A budget resolution would allow the Senate to move forward with a spending plan with only Republican votes (and even then only one to spare). But unless the rules change (which President Trump wants) the Senate needs 60 votes for regular appropriations bills. That means a lot of compromise before federal spending.

The most popular part of the president’s budget is infrastructure spending. But most of his plan would be funding from state, local, and tribal governments. That’s a problem. Congress will not be eager to follow this approach, especially in an election year. Members of Congress love announcing new roads and other projects. It means jobs back home.

It’s telling that in the White House statement on infrastructure tribes are not mentioned (something that was routinely done in the Obama White House).

Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, wrote: “Our infrastructure is broken. The average driver spends 42 hours per year sitting in traffic, missing valuable time with family and wasting 3.1 billion gallons of fuel annually. Nearly 40 percent of our bridges predate the first moon landing. And last year, 240,000 water main breaks wasted more than 2 trillion gallons of purified drinking water—enough to supply Belgium.”

So the Trump administration’s answer is to fund this with local government dollars because, as Cohn puts it, “the federal government politically allocated funds for projects, leading to waste, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities. The answer to our nation’s infrastructure needs is not more projects selected by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C Instead, the President’s plan designates half of its $200 billion for matching funds to stimulate State, local, and private investment.”

Another thing for a broken Congress to fix. If the votes are there. In theory that should be easy. This is an area where Republicans and Democrats agree (actually anyone who looks at the crumbling state of infrastructure can figure this one out). But in this Congress? We shall see.

At the State of the Indian Nations Monday, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said: “Native peoples are also builders and managers of roads and bridges, and other essential infrastructure. These projects are often in rural areas. They connect tribal and surrounding communities with each other, and the rest of the Nation. Tribal infrastructure is American infrastructure. In 2018, NO infrastructure bill should pass, UNLESS it includes Indian Country’s priorities.”

Back to the budget as a messaging document. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says this budget “violates the spirit of the bipartisan agreement that congressional leaders negotiated just a few days ago.”  That’s going to make it much more difficult to come up with the next agreement in Congress (unless the law is ironclad, stripping the administration of some of its governing authority).

The budget assumes that Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a block grant formula. The votes are not there for that. It’s fantasy.

The current bipartisan agreement “calls for adding $2.9 billion per year over the next two years to the discretionary Child Care and Development Block Grant, boosting this key federal program to help make child care affordable for low- and modest-income parents.  But the budget reneges on that and proposes essentially flat funding for the program. The Administration’s blatant dismissal of a major bipartisan agreement on which the ink is barely dry may make bipartisan agreements harder to reach in the future,” the budget center reports. “And then, in years after 2019, the budget calls for cuts of unprecedented depth in non-defense discretionary programs even though that’s the part of the budget that contains many federal investments in long-term economic growth.  By 2028, funding for non-defense discretionary programs would fall 42 percent below the 2017 level, after adjusting for inflation.  Indeed, by 2028, total NDD spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, would be at its lowest level since Herbert Hoover was president.”

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Where federal money is spent. Source: Congressional Budget Office.

To me that’s the key point. Domestic spending, the programs that serve Indian Country, are already dropping and have been for a long time. All domestic discretionary programs add up to about 4.6 percent of the budget — and federal spending on Indian Country is a tiny fraction of that.

And, as the budget center points out, that means Trump budgets would actually “go below the 2019 sequestration levels, which Congress just agreed is too low to meet national needs.”

The messaging document (the budget, remember?) has another problem. It’s based on assumptions that are even more of a fantasy than repealing the Affordable Care Act. The budget assumes a 3 percent growth rate this year and 4 percent next year. So lots more people earning more and paying more income taxes (since corporations will be paying less). Not. Going. To. Happen.

Even economists think this is nonsense. The crackdown on immigration, for example, is shrinking the economy, not growing it. And the Congressional Budget Office projects a long term growth rate of just under 2 percent. Last year the economy grew at 2.6 percent, below what Trump said would happen and even below the consensus of economists.

This 2019 budget will accomplish one thing: It will serve as a mile post for the fall election. Republicans can make the case for defense spending and, I suppose, that they used to be against deficits. And Democrats will make the case for protecting health care and other domestic priorities.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

 

 

Republicans get their tax bill passed, and a shout out to the spirit of Andrew …

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Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon championed tax cuts for the wealthy — and sharp budget cuts — in the years before the Great Depression. (Treasury Department photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Turns out we’ve been worried about the wrong, Andrew. The Republican tax plan, President Donald J. Trump’s signature legislation, would make Andrew Mellon proud.

Andrew Mellon was a wealthy industrialist who served in government as the Secretary of Treasury. Here’s what Trump’s own Treasury Department says about Mellon: “As the Nation embarked on the most materialistic period in its history, Mellon’s philosophy was one of debt reduction, tax reduction, and a balanced budget. His tax reform scheme, known as the Mellon Plan, reduced taxes for business. His theory was that big business would prosper in proportion to the lightening of its tax load and its profit would be transferred to the rest of the Nation. During much of his tenure, general prosperity and times of peace enabled Mellon to implement his measures. The Great Depression, however, beginning in 1929, undercut Mellon’s prestige and brought him under increasing criticism. Despite the downturn in the economy, Mellon continued his policy of balancing the budget by cutting spending and increasing taxes, which worsened the effect of the Depression on the ordinary citizen.”

History is prologue. Damn. You hardly have to change a word to know that this sentence is about now. Swap today’s Treasury Secretary Steven Terner Mnuchin for Mellon and the story still answers, what’s next?

Both the House and the Senate have now passed the legislation to cut taxes so that business will prosper by the lightening of its tax load and its profit would be transferred to the rest of the nation. The funny thing is that people really believe this load of crap. Then self-delusion was a common thread in the Senate debate. Maine Sen. Susan Collins voted yes because Mitch McConnell promised her budget cuts (including cuts to Medicare) would not follow. She even tweeted proof, a McConnell letter saying Congress has the power to waive such acts. But, does he have the will or the votes to do so?

The conservative wing is, at least, honest about this. When the tax cuts result in a massive expansion of debt they want sharp budget cuts. This is a core belief. And has been since Mellon’s time. Or as the Treasury Department puts it: “Despite the downturn in the economy, Mellon continued his policy of balancing the budget by cutting spending and increasing taxes, which worsened the effect of the Depression on the ordinary citizen.”

Or there was Arizona’s John McCain, the so-called champion of regular order, voting for a 479-page bill with handwritten amendments. A bill that will add (by Congress’ own estimate) about a trillion in debt was passed in a few weeks without the usual hearings or independent scoring. The maverick did not care about process. Get it done.

How bad is this bill? It’s right up there as one of the most unpopular bills ever. An average of polling shows its popular support at about one-third. And, get this, FiveThirtyEight reports that this bill is even more unpopular than tax hikes.

A couple of things about Indian Country: So many of our tribal citizens are the low end when it comes to earning. This bill does nothing to lighten that tax load. Indeed a late night effort to increase tax credits for children, making them refundable. (Remember nearly half of all Americans don’t pay income tax, it’s the payroll tax that is the burden. This would have helped.)

And instead of turning the dial back on fossil fuels this bill aligns the tax code for more development. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has made this part of the legislation her signature, not health care, and certainly not climate change (as she so eloquently talked about during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October.) She owns this.

The Atlantic magazine says this bill “could forever alter Alaska’s Indigenous communities” by development. “The issue still divides Native villages, counties, and Native nations in Alaska. It also sets tribes with differing claims to Alaska’s North Slope against each other.”

This bill also strips the mandate to buy insurance. A win for freedom, right? Perhaps. But it also means that healthy people will not buy as much insurance leaving sicker, older people to pay the bills. It will weaken the insurance framework. At least 13 million fewer people will carry health insurance as a result.

However there are winners: Big corporations, rich would-be heirs (like the Trump children) and religious schools (an amendment by Ted Cruz expands tax-free savings for this purpose).

The process ahead: This bill will still have to be reconciled with the House. There are differences, such as taxing graduate students and deducting medical expenses.

But cutting taxes (and then the budget) is something Republicans have championed long before Andrew Mellon. So this bill is likely to become law soon. President Trump can make both Andrews proud.

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. 

Tax cuts? Hell. No. Thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children will lose health insurance

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Congress has yet to reenact the Children’s Health Insurance Program and states will soon run out of funds to prop up the program. That will mean that thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children will lose their health insurance. And, the result is the Indian Health Service will have to stretch its already thin dollars to try and cover the budget hole.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program expired Sept. 30. This federal program insures young people and pregnant women who make just enough money not to qualify for Medicaid (but can’t afford private insurance). The idea is to make sure that every child has the resources to see a doctor when they are ill.

It’s hard to break down precise numbers because agencies lump funds from the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP into Medicaid data. But we do know that the law worked really well. We also know there are more than 216,000 children that have health insurance because of Medicaid and the CHIP. Indeed, Native American children rely on Medicaid and CHIP at much higher percentages than other population groups. A study by Georgetown reported that 54 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP as compared to 39 percent of all children. “Even though much progress has been made in extending Medicaid coverage to American Indians and Alaska Natives, the uninsured rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children and families remain unacceptably high,” the report said.

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Source: Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. Coverage Trends for American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Families.

Overall the uninsured rate among non-elderly American Indians and Alaska Natives fell by 7 percentage points from 24 percent to 17 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This is a big deal and here’s why: The Indian Health Service is a health care delivery operation that works best when insurance (third-party billing in government-speak) pays for the medical costs. Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare, and other third-party billing now accounts for 22 percent of the IHS’ $6.15 billion budget.

But if Children’s health is no longer funded (because Congress did not reauthorize the legislation) then the Indian Health Service will have to make up the difference. That means taking money away from other patients and programs. It will be a critical problem for clinics because by law dollars from third-party billing (or Medicaid and CHIP) remain local.

Alaska is the state most impacted by Congress’ failure to act because two-thirds of the children in the Native health system are covered by Medicaid or CHIP. Other states where there will be significant hits: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California.

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Source: Georgetown University Health Policy Institute

The House of Representatives passed a CHIP reauthorization in early November. But that bill included a $6.35 billion budget cut to other health programs, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides money for vaccines, smoking cessation, and other initiatives to improve public health. The House would also ban lottery winners from being insured by Medicaid, tighten the timetable for people to sign up, and to change other rules.

It’s unlikely the Senate will agree. But the Senate is not moving quickly to pass its own legislation. The Senate is too busy working out tax cuts that will benefit large corporations and the very wealthy. (Previous post: What matters? Tax fight is about seven competing values.)

Across the country, some nine million low- and middle-income children rely on CHIP for health coverage. And, according to The Hill newspaper, States have asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for funding to hold them over in the interim, and the agency has awarded about $607 million in redistributed funds to states and U.S. territories. Tribes will also lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in CHIP-related grants.

Last month, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate committee responsible, called CHIP a “top priority” that had bipartisan support. The committee passed the bill October 2. But it’s up to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to bring the legislation to the floor for enactment. Then the House and Senate would have to iron out and agree on their differences before the bill can become law.

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

Here we go again: The congressional attack on health care, higher education #IndigenousNewsWire

Updated.

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Here we go again. The Congress is hell bent on wrecking the Affordable Care Act.

This time the mechanism is the so-called tax reform bill that will be voted in the U.S. Senate. The logic is rich (and, yes, “rich” is absolutely the right word and sentiment) because this tax cut will wreck the individual health insurance market so that the rich will pay less in taxes. But the problem gets at the core of insurance itself. How do you make sure there is a large enough pool to cover high cost patients? The Affordable Care Act did this by requiring everyone to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Without that provision people who are healthy are free to skip out. But sick people always want coverage. And that creates an imbalance that does not work.

Senate Republicans added the provision because it saves money, some $338 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office. It estimates 13 million people will drop health insurance.

“We’re optimistic that inserting the individual mandate repeal would be helpful,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

The Senate bill is now being shaped into its final form. Wait. That’s funny. That’s what they say. But both the Senate and the House will change these tax bills all the way up until the final vote (unless it’s a sure thing, anyway). One of the reasons the bill will evolve is what’s called the Byrd Rule. This Senate is using the reconciliation process, like the Affordable Care Act repeal bills, so only 50 votes are required to pass. But that means the bill has limit of $1.5 trillion in new debt over 10 years and cannot add more after that. None of the bills, so far, accomplish that.

So the health care fight is back. And the Senate majority is confident this time they have the votes to pass the legislation.

There are other provisions in Senate tax bill that will impact American Indians and Alaska Natives.

One of the key ideas is to increase the size of the standard deduction so that fewer taxpayers will have to itemize. But to pay for that the simplicity the Senate bill is getting rid of some popular deductions, including the ability to deduct state and local taxes from your federal tax return. The bill also gets rid of deductions for dependents. The math works out so that families with fewer than three children will pay about the same. But if your family size is larger, then you will pay more. This is Indian Country. The average American family has 3.2 children, but in Indian Country it’s 4.2 children per family.

Update: The Joint Committee on Taxation released its findings on Thursday. Its research shows that taxes will increase for those earning less than $30,000 per year. And by a wide margin. The calculation is based, in part, on the current subsidy to purchase health insurance.

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And this is where it gets weird. The Senate bill does increase a tax credit, from $1,000 now to $1,650 per child. But, and this is huge, the additional $650 credit is only available to those who owe federal income taxes. It’s not refundable. This is important to people who are not rich because so many pay more in payroll taxes (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) than in income taxes.

Add it all up and the Senate bill would increase taxes on 13.8 million moderate income households. But, hey, at least the rich get a break, right?

The House of Representatives passed its version of tax reform Thursday by a vote of 227-205. No Democrats voted for the bill, while 13 Republicans opposed it.

The House bill is similar but takes a different tack on mortgages and the deduction of state and local taxes. The House would also eliminate the ability of families to deduct medical expenses. (Think about that when matched with the Senate’s plan to mess up health insurance.)

And the House bill really goes after university graduate students.

Many graduate students earn a small stipend for working on campus, doing research or teaching, and get a break on tuition. The stipend is already taxed. But the House would tax the tuition waiver, thousands of dollars. The average cost of graduate school is $30,000 a year at a public university and $40,000 at a private school. The Washington Post explains the problem this way: “Say you’re a married graduate student at Princeton. Your spouse has a full-time job and makes $50,000 a year; you have two school-age children. You’re filing a joint tax return. For sake of simplicity, you have no other deductions beyond the standard. According to H&R Block’s tax calculator, you would owe about $5,000 under the current law. Under the proposed Republican plan, you would owe about $15,000.”

The House bill also eliminates the deduction for interest on student loans and it eliminates tax credits for higher education.

This is terrible public policy. The digital age demands more education, not less, and the tax code should be in alignment. The House bill does the opposite. It will make higher education more expensive and less likely for too many people.

And just to make sure that higher education gets the message about what the country values, the House bill also would tax the larger university endowments, such as Harvard, Princeton, and even smaller colleges that have reserves of more than $250,000 per student.

But both the House and Senate do have one group in mind when writing this new tax code, business. The total “tax cuts” in the bill add up to $1.4 trillion over the next decade and of that amount, $1 trillion goes to businesses and corporations. It does this by reducing the corporate tax bracket from to 20 percent.

The other side of this tax debate is that it will reduce the amount of revenue that goes into the federal treasury. That means that soon after one of these measures passes, Congress will be required to look again at cutting spending.

Already the Congressional Budget Office estimates the tax bill will require $136 billion cuts from Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs. “Without enacting subsequent legislation to either offset that deficit increase, waive the recordation of the bill’s impact on the scorecard, or otherwise mitigate or eliminate the requirements of the [pay-go] law, OMB would be required to issue a sequestration order within 15 days of the end of the session of Congress to reduce spending in fiscal year 2018 by the resultant total of $136 billion,” CBO said Tuesday.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pegs these coming budget cuts at $5.8 trillion. “These include $1.8 trillion in cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and other health care entitlement programs and $800 billion in cuts below the already austere sequestration levels in ‘non-defense discretionary’ programs, the budget area that includes education and training, transportation, scientific and medical research, protection of the food and water supply, child care, low-income housing assistance, services for frail elderly people, and much more,” the center reports.

So we are just at the beginning of the debate. The conservative dream is to sharply cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy — and then to shrink government. The House and Senate tax bills do just that.

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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Government’s own report says climate change is getting worse … yet it’s taxes that are on Congress’ mind

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House Speaker Paul Ryan says the tax cut legislation is on track. He projected that nearly a million new jobs would be created. (House photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Two serious debates in Washington right now: Climate change and taxes. These are connected. And the decisions made over the next few days and weeks will impact you and your children’s future.

The federal government is required by law to publish a climate assessment. The report is out and it’s troubling. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska.”

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The National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country. This bill was required by Congress in 1990 to “understand, assess, predict and respond” to global warming. It represents the best science from across the federal government.

So how is the Congress and the Trump administration responding to the report?

Well, the White House basically said, no worries, the climate is always changing. Especially because the president and Congress are focused instead on tax cuts.

Tax policy is, of course, an important concern for tribal governments and enterprises. As Adrienne St. Clair reported for Cronkite News about a complaint from tribal leaders about not being included in the discussion. “Tribes struggle with economic growth because of things like basic federal tax law, dual taxation from state governments and budget cuts from the federal programs that serve them. They urged lawmakers to push for legislation that will help Indian Country, including increasing investment incentives and allowable tax credits,” St. Clair wrote.

And it’s not just tribes. A restructuring of federal taxes will impact American Indians and Alaska Natives in all sorts of ways.

I get tired of the debate being about “middle class” taxpayers. First of all, I (and most policy makers) don’t really know what that means any more. Most working families consider themselves middle class. And what about a young single mother trying to raise a family on $25,000 a year? In an ideal setting she would not pay any income taxes.

And the Republican proposal (that party distinction is important because there were no open hearings, or amendments, this is a Republican bill designed to win or lose on Republican votes) on the surface will save many American Indian and Alaska Native families money. The tax proposal would double the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for joint filers. That’s the amount of money you can earn sort of tax free. But the plan takes away deductions for children — so a larger family could end up paying more from the start because of the fewer deductions. (So less than half needed for the scenario of a single mother raising children.)

And that’s not all. The tax cuts for families don’t last. The Joint Committee on Taxation (the congressional agency that does the math) reports that families earning between $20,000 and $40,000 a year and between $200,000 to $500,000 would pay more in individual income taxes in 2023 and beyond. Republicans argue the tax measure would result in a million new jobs.

The total cost is not a bargain either, the tax cuts would add some $1.5 trillion to the debt over the next decade.

Let’s be clear: The goal of this tax measure is to cut taxes for businesses. Individuals are a side debate. Nonetheless, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, points out 70 percent of that tax cut would flow to the top fifth of households, with one-third flowing to the top 1 percent alone.

There is another problem for Indian Country.  This tax proposal is linked to a budget measure that has already passed Congress. And that budget calls for deep spending cuts across federal programs — think sequester times two or three. And because of the process used: the Senate will need just 50 votes to implement these severe budget cuts.

Congress’ budget also opens up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development — and an increase in fossil fuel production (the very cause of climate change).

This is a tough moment for that. The National Climate Assessment says Alaska is already at risk. “Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the nation, bringing widespread impacts. Sea ice is rapidly receding and glaciers are shrinking. Thawing permafrost is leading to more wildfire, and affecting infrastructure and wildlife habitat. Rising ocean temperatures and acidification will alter valuable marine fisheries.”

The Trump administration and the Republican leaders in Congress have made tax cuts their most important initiative. But the divide is similar to what we saw in the bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So the outcome is uncertain at best. And, unlike health care, there might be enough votes in either the House of Representative or the Senate to tank the tax bill.

However on Fox News Sunday Speaker Paul Ryan said the House is “on track” to pass this legislation before Thanksgiving. Hashtag: #TurkeyAlert.

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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Indians don’t pay taxes? Or why the coming tax debate matters so damn much

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House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate leaders announce their framework for Tax Reform. (Photo: Speaker.Gov)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Senate has given up on destroying Medicaid and much of the health care system and is now focused on restructuring the federal tax system (and destroying entitlement programs in the process).

Here is what Speaker Paul Ryan said Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation:  “We’re going to double that standard deduction. We’re going to make it so he can fill out his taxes on a postcard. We’re going to lower his taxes. That’s really important. So he has more tax-home pay. But there’s another component to this is, look at this machine shop, this business pays about a 40 percent tax rate but it competes with companies all around the world who pay an average 22 and a half percent on their taxes.”

The GOP Framework begins with this set of principles: “President Trump has laid out four principles for tax reform: First, make the tax code simple, fair and easy to understand. Second, give American workers a pay raise by allowing them to keep more of their hard-earned paychecks. Third, make America the jobs magnet of the world by leveling the playing field for American businesses and workers. Finally, bring back trillions of dollars that are currently kept off-shore to reinvest in the American economy.”

So how does Indian Country fit into that framework? Indians don’t pay taxes, remember? Actually if you Google that phrase it returns 2.17 million hits. It’s still a myth that will not fade away. But the larger issue of tax reform and its impact on Indian Country is still a complicated question, one that starts with the definition of “taxes.” Most so-called middle-income wage earners pay income taxes. Roughly one-third of all wage earners do not pay income taxes — and that would include a lot of tribal citizens, especially those living in their tribal nations. There are nearly 150 million tax returns filed every year and 36 million end up paying no tax at all. Another 16 million had taxable income but didn’t pay anything because of tax credits, deductions and other adjustments.

And, many of Indian Country’s working class especially benefit from one such credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is a hugely successful policy that returns cash money to some 7 million family incomes; a paid bonus of sorts for working.

“Numerous studies show that working-family tax credits boost work effort,” according to The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “The EITC expansions of the 1990s contributed as much to the subsequent increases in work among single mothers and female heads of households as the welfare changes of that period, extensive research has found. Women who benefited from those EITC expansions also experienced higher wage growth in subsequent years than otherwise-similar women who didn’t benefit.  And, by boosting the employment and earnings of working-age women, the EITC boosts the size of the Social Security retirement benefits they ultimately will receive.

In addition, the research shows that by boosting the employment of single mothers, the EITC reduces the number of female-headed households receiving cash welfare assistance.”

So far, at least, there is no plan to end the Earned Income Tax Credit. However the House Budget Committee has proposed that the IRS require more proof from taxpayers and audit homes with an error. (Auditing the poor seems a long way from the Willie Horton philosophy of tax collection, or bank robbing, and that’s the idea you go where the money is.)

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It turns out there is a lot of data on tax collection by county. So I looked at the counties with significant a Native American population and there is some fascinating data from the Internal Revenue Service, based on 2015 tax returns.

In Oglala Lakota County, for example, some 2,010 taxpayers out of 3,980 collected an average of $3,020. The bulk of that was collected by families earning less than $25,000. And the average tax bill was $7,170. The county is comprised almost entirely of Native Americans and the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The Earned Income Tax Credit is also critical to many Navajo families. In Apache County, Arizona, that includes a large portion of the Navajo Nation, some 27,172 take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit. And, like Pine Ridge, most are in the under $25,000 category, but the amounts are significantly more, an average return of a little more than $4,000.

In the Bethel Census Area of Alaska there are similar numbers. Nearly 2,400 people claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit and most of the workers earned under $25,000 and averaged a refundable return of $2,738.

My point here is that this is the one policy that is essential to Indian Country because it benefits so many people who have jobs but who barely earn a living wage. Any changes to this tax credit should be opposed vigorously.

It’s also important to remember that most tribal citizens pay  a higher percentage of our income toward payroll taxes, instead of income taxes. A report by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation says that the 80 million tax filers making $40,000 or less will collectively pay no federal income tax and many will even receive cash payments from the IRS in 2015. But they will pay $121 billion in Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes (including the employer share, which most economists believe falls on workers).

So that will be another important factor to watch as the debate heats up. Rarely does the payroll taxes — Medicare, Social Security, etc. — sneak into the larger debate about taxes. But it should be about the total taxation, not just income taxes.

And one other unique characteristic of Indian Country tax data is that the amount paid to state and local governments is significantly lower than the general population. In most states tribal members living on their home tribal nation pay zero in state and local taxes. This will be important to remember when Congress debates the deduction of state and local taxes. (A big deal for people living in high tax states such as California or New York, but less so in low tax states and where the sales tax is the primary method to fund state government.)

Congress has a complicated road ahead before it can even pass a tax bill. The plan is for both houses to enact a budget resolution, setting out the priorities for tax reform. This is a document that basically sets limits on spending (so the committees will still decide how to spend money for Indian programs, but will be limited by their budget ceiling). This will not be easy. The House and Senate will need Republicans to stick together on fiscal issues ranging from the border wall to how large federal programs should be cut back.

Basically the same tension that existed during the health care debate will play out between so-called moderates and the more strident anti-government wing of the Republican party.

If a budget is passed, the Senate can start take up tax reform and need only 50-votes to pass the legislation. Remember, if.

Speaker Ryan talked about fixing the business rate. The Republican mantra is that U.S. companies pay more than their global competitors. (Funny: This same argument doesn’t come up with health care where a company like Boeing spends a lot on its employee health care while the French Airbus can rely on its national health care system to save money.) But there is one last issue to watch: Don’t just believe any number that is posted as a tax rate. There may be a tax with 40 percent tax rate, but if the deductions and credits add up, the effective tax rate could be 20 percent. So that’s the number to watch and ask about, how much is that effective tax rate?

One final point: It’s interesting that so much of the discourse is about companies wanting to pay lower taxes as an incentive to create more jobs. Yet many technology companies are moving to the higher tax land called Canada. “As America closes its borders, Canada is playing the longer, smarter game,” Richard Florida and Joshua Gans wrote in Politico this week. “Canada, more than any other place, is uniquely positioned to benefit from Trump’s anti-immigrant posture … If he keeps up his anti-immigration push, the United States’ polite neighbor to the north could soon be eating Americans’ lunch.”

It’s not always about the taxes.

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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Congress needs more time to finish spending bills; shutdown ahead?

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Speaker Paul Ryan at a news conference in Oregon Wednesday said “most people don’t want a government shutdown, ourselves included.” (Photo via YouTube)

Trahant Reports

The September Mess has started early. Congress will return to Washington next week facing some really tricky issues ranging from an increase in the debt limit to spending money so that the federal government can operate. President Donald J. Trump in Phoenix raised the stakes, saying he would favor a shutdown of the government unless Congress includes funding for the border wall.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, at an event in Oregon, said “I don’t think a government shutdown is necessary, and I don’t think most people want to see a government shutdown, ourselves included.” Funding for a border wall has already passed the House and is now waiting on the Senate.

But that’s where this mess gets tricky. It would take 60 votes to move that spending legislation forward (which is why the president keeps tweeting that the filibuster should go away) and the votes are not there. Democrats in both the House and Senate reaffirmed their opposition to the wall.

And there is another problem. Ryan said the Congress doesn’t have enough time to finish this year’s budget by Sept. 30 (the deadline for spending) and so it’s likely there will be another Continuing Resolution that funds the government through the end of 2017.

“The fact is though, given the time of year it is and the rest of the appropriations we have to do, we’re going to need more time to complete our appropriations process, particularly in the Senate. So that’s something that I think we all recognize and understand, that we’re going to have to have some more time to complete our appropriations process,” Ryan said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president sees the wall as vital to national security. “The President has made no secret that this is a priority for him, and he continues to advocate for it and he’ll continue to make sure that we move forward to secure the border and secure our country,” she told reporters.

There is an unanswered question here: Will the Trump administration demand border funding in the Continuing Resolution? (Get the shutdown going sooner, rather than later?) Or will the fight be held off until the holidays?

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president sees the wall as vital to national security. “The President has made no secret that this is a priority for him, and he continues to advocate for it and he’ll continue to make sure that we move forward to secure the border and secure our country,” she told reporters.

Indian Country is always hit hard by government shutdowns.

As I wrote last time around:  “So what will a closed federal government look like? History gives us a clue. There was a 21-day shutdown that started on December 16, 1995, and continued to January 6, 1996. According to the Congressional Research ServiceAll 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) 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.

“And at the Indian Health Service, 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.”

Time for Plan B. And C. — Mark Trahant