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

 

 

 

 

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

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Trump’s deal with Democrats shows that governing is not out of the question

 

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President Donald J. Trump in North Dakota on Wednesday talking about his tax reform plans. (WhiteHouse.Gov)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Big news: The rest of the year will have less drama than the ups and downs we’ve been experiencing since January. The federal government will more or less operate on schedule, the federal debt limit fight has been pushed back to the end of the year, and President Donald J. Trump has successfully reached out to Democrats.

What a week. When it began, I wrote: “Congress is back today and one of two things will happen: It will either do its work or all hell will break loose.” But I was off. It wasn’t exactly Congress doing its job, it was the president. He bypassed his own Republican party leaders (catching them off-guard by all accounts) and struck a deal with Democrats in the House and Senate to fund government for the rest of the year and push the debt limit fight back until December.

This is exactly what the president should have been doing all along. This is governing. It means, for now, at least, that he’s reaching out to the majority in Congress (moderate Republicans plus the Democrats) instead of catering to the far right wing of the party. It’s smart politics. But it’s also dangerous because his action undermined both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If it’s a one-time event, Ryan and McConnell will get over the snub. But if this is the new way of doing business, well, then, there will be a different kind of drama ahead.

There is also movement this week on the Republican plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. According to The Hill newspaper, John McCain now favors legislation proposed by Senators Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana. This plan would push more of the decision making about health care to the states through block grants. It would even let states keep many aspects of the Affordable Care Act such as Medicaid expansion, as long as they’re willing to pay for the extra costs. That’s a deal breaker.

The problem for the Indian health system in such a scheme is that states neither understand nor want to invest the resources required. The ideal scenario would be for Indian Country to be a 51st state and get funding directly. But that’s not a part of the legislative proposal.

This bill would have to be considered fast under Senate rules. The current set-up is to vote on a replacement plan using the budget reconciliation process. That only requires 50 votes instead of the more common 60 vote standard (to interrupt a filibuster). The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that reconciliation goes away on Sept. 30 unless there is a new budget in place. That’s unlikely.

Another health care issue that impacts Indian Country is the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan or CHIP. The current law expires Sept. 30. It pays for the insurance of 8.9 million children through Medicaid. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “Medicaid plays a more expansive role for American Indian and Alaska Native children than adults, covering more than half of American Indian and Alaska Native children (54%) versus 23% of nonelderly adults.” CHIP would be included in that number.

CHIP also pays for school programs and other health care outreach efforts. The federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare said: “In 2014, CMS awarded $3.9 million in CHIPRA grants to engage schools and tribal agencies in Medicaid and CHIP outreach and enrollment activities. Grantees included Indian Health Service organizations, tribal health providers, and urban Indian health providers across 7 states.”

Important stuff. We need another presidential deal with Democrats. Quickly.

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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Cecil D. Andrus, RIP (a morning memory)

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The year was 1977. I was editor of the Sho-Ban News and Idaho’s Gov. Cecil Andrus had recently been named by President Jimmy Carter as Secretary of the Interior. If I remember right, this interview took place in his Boise office.

Andrus was a politician who gave clear answers and was a great storyteller. I remember our last interview, I wanted to find out more about Joe Garry from the perspective of Idaho Democrats. Andrus wouldn’t go there. Not his topic. Next.

At the time of this photograph, tribes were not happy with the Carter administration because of a national water policy that pushed a lot of the decision-making to states (a problem for tribal water rights that pre-date many states). The policy was later changed because of the inside work of Forrest Gerard, Suzan Harjo, and Tom Fredericks.

I remember a story Andrus told me when he was at Interior. He said one of the frustrating things about that job was how hard it was to effect a policy decision. As governor of Idaho, he said, I could make a terrible decision and make it so. But as Interior Secretary it was difficult to make a good decision so.

After Interior he was re-elected Governor. Twice.

RIP. — Mark Trahant

THE ELECTED: Opening up a channel for discourse about Indian Country’s issues

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Updated interactive version of this graphic, here.  (Trahant Reports)

Native American Republicans include two elected members of Congress; a dozen serving in seven state legislatures

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country cannot afford to close the door to Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures, especially those Native Americans who have been elected to office and serve as Republicans.

There are two tribal citizens serving in Congress: Representatives Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

There are at least at least a dozen Native American Republicans serving in state legislatures (compared to 51 Democrats) in seven states. That list includes Alaska Sen. Lyman Hoffmana Democrat, but he caucuses with the Republican majority and now serves as a chair of several committees and sub-committees. Hoffman is Yup’ik. In the Alaska House, Rep. Charisse Millett, Inupiaq, is now her party’s minority leader.

Not all the elected Native American Republicans make tribal issues any sort of priority. Minnesota Rep. Steve Green, for example, does not include tribal membership in his biography or in his campaign literature. Yet his district includes the White Earth Nation.

However most of the Native American Republicans who are elected to office also engage in Native policy issues before state legislatures, including support for enhancing tribal languages, teaching Native history, expanding or limiting tribal jurisdiction, voting rights, and, soon, state measures to shape the next version of health care reform.

One shared trait of the Native Americans who are elected as Republicans is support for fossil fuel energy development. “As a local elected official, I am outraged that Indian Country is prevented from harnessing our own energy resources by ever-increasing regulations,” New Mexico State Representative Sharon Clachischillage said in a Native Americans for Trump promotion. “The Trump Administration will ease restrictions on American energy reserves worth trillions of dollars. Together we will block the bureaucrats holding Native American businesses back and bring new jobs into our communities.”

But even the idea of energy development gets more complicated in Indian Country.  As Sen. Hoffman reports on his biography page: “Every Alaskan deserves affordable energy. As a resource rich state (oil, gas, wind, and tidal), our state should and could, harness all of this energy to benefit all of its citizens. I pledge to continue to work towards reducing the high cost of energy in rural Alaska.” Anyone who’s purchased gas in a village — topping $6 a gallon in Hoffman’s home in Bethel — gets that.

But many of these same communities, especially in rural Alaska, are at the global warming frontline and more money will soon be required to build sea walls, fight more fires, or even relocate entire villages. In his biography, Hoffman only cites the opportunity. “Our backyard is changing opening new ventures, with the thawing of the tundra and the melting of the Arctic ice,” he writes. “It is my intent and my responsibility as your state Senator, to ensure our region participates …”

Then not every Republican even goes that far. Montana Sen. Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne, ran for office against Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow, to spur reinvestment in coal. Small recently wrote in The Billings Gazette: “Thirty million dollars a year in lost royalties, hundreds of direct jobs lost, thousands of families out of work and out of options, entire towns destroyed, statewide economic ripples, and over $1 trillion dollars in stranded assets, not necessarily because of market forces, but directly attributable to a political agenda. That is what we face in the current and unprecedented assault on reason and Montana’s economy in what has been dubbed ‘the War on Coal.’”

Then market forces will be a test of this notion. Can pro-coal Republicans legislate the revival of the coal industry? Small argued in the piece that “carbon capture and combined cycle technology can solve the global climate challenge posed in part by the world’s more than 7,000 coal-fired power plants.” Coal prices did surge after Trump’s election, at one point topping $110 per metric ton, but have since declined to about $83.50 per ton. Since the election at least one major power plant, the Navajo Generating Station near Page, has been marked for closure in two years. The Arizona utilities that own the generating station say that the low cost of natural gas is their primary reason for closing the plant. That in two words, market forces.

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Waiting for Congress

Most state legislatures are waiting for Congress before taking action before another round of healthcare reform at the state level. And that’s a debate that is still hot. There are three distinct points of view about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare). The plan by the House leadership (which has not been released yet) is supposed to be designed around tax credits instead of the insurance subsidies that are in the current law. Several of the most conservative members of the House and Senate see that as a new entitlement and have signaled their opposition. A third group of Republican moderates have been working with state governors to preserve Medicaid expansion because that insures some 22 million people (including more than $800 million for the Indian health system).

Rep. Cole is a likely supporter of the plan that emerges from House leadership. That includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act as well as the Medicaid expansion. He recently told Native America Calling that Oklahoma did not choose to expand Medicaid and that made the system unequal.

However Cole said what ever plan emerges he said the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a “bedrock” legal authority that must remain. “This legislation was included … purely as ‘vote bait’ to secure Democratic votes and has nothing to do with” the Affordable Care Act,” Cole said. “It is vital and ensures that Native Americans have quality health care available to them and their families. There is no controversy here – it sets the national policy for many programs and services provided by the Indian Health Service.”

A few weeks ago the repeal of the Affordable Care Act seemed like a sure thing. And now? The next week or two could answer that question. And the course that’s picked will have a huge impact on the Indian health system. 

And, over that same time frame, Native American Republicans will be asked to take a stand about deep budget cuts across federal agencies. Several news agencies have reported that the Office of Management and Budget is calling for a $1.3 billion cut at the Interior Department. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke employees that he did look at the budget and is not happy about it, according to Energy & Environment News. “We’re going to fight about it,” Zinke said, “and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.” E & E News reported that Zinke would engage in a major reorganization of the department, one that focuses the agency on the next one hundred years (including the promotion of tribal sovereignty).

It’s easy to find the issues where Native American Democrats and Republicans disagree. Indeed it would be simple for me to shape every column as doom and gloom, the logic of “Oh, what is that Trump going to do next?” But that won’t help the policy debates that are so important to Indian Country. But that idea discounts how much agreement there is out there — even in this hyper-partisan climate. It was Rep. Cole who helped champion the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, including the provisions for tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Tribes still have a lot of work to do to implement that law. Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, and a key supporter of the act, said tribes should get their law and order codes ready now to comply with the law. Too few tribes have taken that step and VAWA will again require reauthorization in 2018 so Indian Country has to present its strongest case for this Congress.

One example of a Native American issue that cuts across party lines is unfolding in Wyoming. The Indian Education for All, House Bill 76, would require the state’s schools to educate all children about the history and economic contributions by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes.

Sen. Affie Ellis was just elected in November and is a co-sponsor of the legislation. She’s a Navajo who grew up in Wyoming and she told the Casper Star-Tribune that Native American students sometimes are threatened by verbal abuse during sports trips across the state. “It’s a really important first step to understanding each other a little bit better,” she told The Star-Tribune. “It’s a brief idea, and I think it’s a fitting one.”

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, Ellis spoke at a panel titled, “Rising Stars in the Conservative Movement.” Back in Wyoming her appearance generated both praise and criticism. The newspaper Planet Jackson Hole asked the question if Ellis was a “sane Republican alternative” to Trumpism? The paper quoted Ellis saying:  “I think our country needs so desperately some thought and some well researched responses …  There’s so many times when it’s easy to name call and have these cute hashtags that stick but we have to have strong facts and start communicating those facts in a very effective way. I think the hard part is the devil in the details of policy you’re working on doesn’t fit into small hashtags. Maybe we just need long hashtags.”

I don’t know about longer hashtags. The one I use,  #NativePolicy, is short. But we certainly need more thoughtful, complex policy debates.

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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President Trump speaks to Congress; budget plan shifts billions to military

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Deborah Parker will be a witness to the president’s speech to Congress Tuesday night as the guest of Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore.

A reminder about what’s at stake from Congressional gallery

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

President Donald J. Trump is set to deliver a financial blow to Indian Country. His first budget will propose cuts of at least $54 billion and an amount that he will add to Defense Spending.

The president will check off his promises from the campaign (even those that make no sense), according to Politico.  “He’s doing what he said he was going to do.”

The budget cuts will come on top of already lean federal spending based on the budget deal that Congress made in 2011 resulting in the sequester. The budget specifics have not been released yet, but to give you an idea about how steep these cuts are, the entire Interior Department budget is $14 billion. So to reach the $54 billion total there would have to be federal programs eliminated.

And that math is a problem. “Accounting for the increase in Veterans Administration (VA) funding that Congress has already approved for 2018 and assuming that Congress doesn’t cut funding for the Department of Homeland Security below current levels, the cut to all other non-defense discretionary programs would be 15 percent,” writes Sharon Parrott, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. ” And if Congress raises homeland security funding above this year’s level, as is likely (news reports indicate the Administration will boost funding for border security), or if Congress raises VA funding further (which is also likely), cuts in other Non-Defense, Domestic areas would have to be even deeper.”

Several reports say the White House is planning a cut of 25 to 30 percent for the Environmental Protection Administration, the State Department, and the Department of Energy. Of course Congress, not the president, has the final word. And there is already problems on that front. Many conservatives are not happy that this budget leaves in tact entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. What’s more: There are Republicans in the House and Senate who will push back against the steep cuts at the agencies. Basically this represents the White House’s opening bid.

One program the White House wants to wipe out is the Justice Department’s Violence Against Women Act office. That agency funds tribal governments “respond to violent crimes against Indian women, enhance victim safety, and develop education and prevention strategies.”  The program funded 53 domestic violence programs last year at a cost of some $33 million.

Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, will be in the House gallery for the joint session. She was invited by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin, to act as a reminder that the president’s agenda will hurt real people across the country. Parker is an important voice for Native American women on domestic violence issues. She worked tirelessly to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized in 2013 and to make sure that Indian Country was included in its provisions. The most controversial part of the law was the recognition of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians for domestic violence crimes. The number of prosecutions since the law has been enacted remains small as tribes have been slow to incorporate VAWA into tribal codes.

And wiping out the Justice Department program that funds such efforts will only make that transition more difficult. But there are many allies in Congress for the program and there will be a fight to continue funding this effort.

Parker said she was told she was invited by Rep. Moore because she was “tired of how the Trump administration was treating Native Americans, including Native women. The way he’s treated Standing Rock, the way he’s treated women in general.” Rep. Moore wanted a symbolic gesture, inviting a Native American woman to the Joint Session.

And the bad news ahead? “I am going to pray about it. Prayer is what gets us through everything,” Parker said. “I am going to pray for everyone in that room that they open their ears, their minds, their hearts, to the heartbeat of these lives of the nation.”

Parker said “you never know what to expect when you go to DC.” But she plans on talking to every member of Congress who will listen about the issues facing tribal communities. “Show your face. Being present is a big thing, a Native person present and being able to speak with a member. Not everyone knows the issues. But as long as you are there to shake their hand, let them know who you are, and, to remember the indigenous peoples of these lands. That’s a place to start.”

President Trump’s talking points include an “an optimistic vision for the country that crosses the traditional lines of party, race and socioeconomic status.” The president’s speech will “reach out to Americans living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and let them know that help is on the way.”

Empty words when the budget cuts the White House is proposing will only make life more difficult for millions of Americans.

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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Federal Indian programs labeled as ‘high risk,’ but real solutions need Congress

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GAO calls three federal Indian programs “high risk,” the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (GAO video.)

It’s impossible to defy gravity #NativePolicy

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Federal Indian programs have been added to the “high-risk” category by the Government Accountability Office. That designation could not come at a worse time.

The details. This is how the GAO defines its high risk identification: “The federal government is one of the world’s largest and most complex entities: about $3.9 trillion in outlays in fiscal year 2016 funded a broad array of programs and operations. GAO’s high-risk program identifies government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

The GAO said it added federal Indian programs to its high risk category because “we have found numerous challenges facing Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service in administering education and health care services, which put the health and safety of American Indians served by these programs at risk. These challenges included poor conditions at BIE school facilities that endangered students, and inadequate oversight of health care that  hindered IHS’s ability to ensure quality care to Indian communities. In addition, we have reported that BIA mismanages Indian energy resources held in trust and thereby limits opportunities for tribes and their members to use those resources to create economic benefits and improve the well-being of their communities.”

More from the GAO: “Congress recently noted, ‘through treaties, statutes, and historical relations with Indian tribes, the United States has undertaken a unique trust responsibility to protect and support Indian tribes and Indians.’ In light of this unique trust responsibility and concerns about the federal government ineffectively administering Indian education and health care programs and mismanaging Indian energy resources, we are adding these programs as a high-risk issue because they uniquely affect tribal nations and their members.”

The three agencies are lumped together as one in this report, yet the causes of what makes the agencies high risk are considerably different, requiring solutions that go well beyond what the agencies themselves can accomplish.

So let’s break it down.

First: GAO complains that the BIA has a problem quickly approving energy projects. This is Congress’ favorite problem. Congress can’t wait to solve this one by making the approval process faster than filling your car with a tank of gas. But the solutions ahead will also have unintended consequences for the very notion of trust lands, tribal control of energy projects, and the challenge of global warming. What happens when a tribe says, “hell no!” to say, the Keystone XL pipeline? That is a policy question that this Congress has all but answered.

Next the GAO says the Bureau of Indian Education “improves how it manages Indian education … including that Indian Affairs develop a strategic plan for BIE that includes goals and performance measures for how its offices are fulfilling their responsibilities to provide BIE with support; revise Indian Affairs’ strategic workforce plan to ensure that BIA regional offices have an appropriate number of staff with the right skills to support BIE schools in their regions; and develop and implement decision-making procedures for BIE to improve accountability for BIE schools.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Only hiring for BIE schools is easier said than done and the decision-making process is complicated by community priorities.

There is another problem at play: Conservative think-tanks have targeted BIE as operating “failing schools” and would replace them with a whacky scheme to create Education Savings Accounts.  (Previous: Day One. Dramatic restructuring of government.) This whole notion is written by people who have no understanding of the geography of Indian Country or the makeup of the Native students. The BIE has unique challenges and there are many, many improvements that could be made. So adding to this discourse a GAO high-risk warning is, well, not helpful.

The third high-risk agency identified by the GAO is the Indian Health Service. The report says: “To help ensure that Indian people receive quality health care, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Director of IHS to take the following two actions: as part of implementing IHS’s quality framework, ensure that agency-wide standards for the quality of care provided in its federally operated facilities are developed and systematically monitor facility performance in meeting these standards over time; and develop contingency and succession plans for replacing key personnel, including area directors.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Again, it’s not as if the IHS is not trying to hire people. The problem is funding and a hiring process that is both cumbersome and required by law.

What I don’t get is why the GAO doesn’t see that the IHS mission has changed dramatically. One part of the agency is a funding mechanism, directing resources to tribal, non-profit, and urban health care facilities. The report alludes to that fact with this recommendation: “To help ensure that timely primary care is available and accessible to Indians, IHS should: develop and communicate specific agency-wide standards for wait times in federally-operated facilities, and monitor patient wait times in federally-operated facilities and ensure that corrective actions are taken when standards are not met.” The key phrase here is “federally-operated” because many of the tribal and nonprofit centers have solved this problem. GAO should have said this and focused on what works and why.

Another GAO recommendation about IHS might be the most tone deaf. It says, “we recommend that IHS realign current resources and personnel to increase capacity to deal with enrollment in Medicaid and the exchanges and prepare for increased billing to these payers.”

Clearing my throat here. Umm. Congress is going in exactly the opposite direction. The serious questions — the ones that Congress ought to be answering — are how much will it cost IHS when Medicaid is turned into a block grant? What replaces Medicaid expansion funding at the local unit level? And, will states even fund a federal health care delivery system?

The GAO report makes a big deal about IHS developing a fair method for how it spends money on purchased and referral care. What the report should have said is that Congress is to blame. The problem is not the architecture; it’s the funding. No federal agency. No state agency. Hell, no private medical system spends less than the Indian health system. The real problem here is that it’s impossible to defy gravity.

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 credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

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Interior secretary pick has a record of listening to tribes

Rep. Ryan Zinke in Frazer, Montana, last summer. (Trahant photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

HELENA, Montana — Just about a week ago it was clear that Cathy McMorris Rodger was headed to the Interior Department. Nope. It was a headfake. President-elect Donald Trump has instead picked Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke for the post.

This is a  much better appointment for Indian Country. Zinke is no less conservative than Rodgers, but since his days in the Montana legislature he has had an open door. He has reached out to tribes in a number of ways. He introduced and championed the Blackfeet water compact and he has supported federal recognition for the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree.

“The truth is Ryan does know the value of public lands, he does know, to an extent, I don’t know how deep, the issues of Indian Country,” said Sen. Jon Tester at the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s Legislative Summit Wednesday. He said the Senate confirmation hearing process will be useful in getting Rep. Zinke on record explaining his views on such things as the government’s Trust Responsibility to tribal nations.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, speaking at the Montana Budget and Policy Center Legislative Summit in Helena. (Trahant photo)

 “It’s a big deal for the state of Montana,” Tester said. “He has a chance to do some really good stuff. Compare him to some of the people nominated before, AKA Sarah Palin, we will take him in a heartbeat.”

At a congressional debate in Frazer, on the Assiniboine Sioux Tribal Nation, Zinke said he had been adopted as an Assiniboine. He said he supports tribes and sovereignty. “I don’t think anyone has worked harder trying to get Blackfeet Water Compact done … I have been out here not because I am your congressman, but because I care.” He said he has been to people’s homes, met with tribal councils, and visited powwows.

Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, told The Helena Independent, that the appointment is “a great day for Montana” and that “Montana tribes will have an ear in the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

Montana Republicans, many Western Republicans, are eager for an Interior Secretary who will open up more federal lands to oil and gas development. And on this score, Zinke will not disappoint. “I’m excited that the Trump administration plans to unleash the economic power of the resources of the nation,” Jeff Eisman, chair of the Montana Republican Party, told Montana Public Radio. “The federal government does control a lot of resources, especially in our end of the country.”

And it’s not likely tribes will often agree with Zinke. This is a Trump administration and Zinke was one of his early supporters. And Zinke has voted against tribes on other issues, such as the Violence Against Women Act,  a law that expanded tribal authority on domestic violence. 

If Zinke is confirmed by the Senate there would be a special election for his House seat.  (Previous: Juneau for President?)

And Denise Juneau?  She said Wednesday night: “I am looking forward to doors opening, figuring out if I want to take advantage of that, and bringing people with me.” That’s a far better answer than a yes or no. 

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 credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

#NativeVote16 – The story is far from over: What’s next for Bernie Sanders?

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

Vermont casts 22 votes for its senator, Bernie Sanders. A minute later, Sanders asks the rules be suspended and that Hillary Clinton be nominated by acclamation. And so the Bernie Sanders’ chapter comes to an end. The question is, “what’s next?”

Let’s explore this from a couple of different points of view.

What’s Sanders’ story going to be? What’s he going to do to advance causes that are progressive? And, more important for my readers, what will he do to improve life in Indian Country?

It’s interesting to explore what happens to senators after they run for president. Most disappear. Some fifty senators have run and lost (only Obama has won the office in recent times) so the “what’s next?” question is actually the norm.

One candidate who came up short was George McGovern from South Dakota. His landslide loss to Richard Nixon did not define his legacy because he recruited so many young people to his cause. Bill Clinton is a beneficiary of the McGovern campaign. McGovern, like Sanders, was not particularly interested in Native American issues before his presidential campaign. But in 1972 campaign McGovern called for the complete restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs either as a White House program or as a cabinet-level agency.

Ted Kennedy is a another example of how someone can build a progressive legacy after his failed White House bid. “Freed at last of the expectation that he should and would seek the White House, Mr. Kennedy devoted himself fully to his day job in the Senate, where he had already led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation,” The New York Times wrote in his obituary. “In the years after his failed White House bid, Mr. Kennedy also established himself as someone who made “lawmaker” mean more than a word used in headlines to describe any member of Congress.”

Imagine what Sanders the “lawmaker” could do. He could be the architect for many new initiatives, better Indian health or education funding, or, basically taking the best of the Democratic Party Platform and making is so. This is what he told Deborah Parker on a live Facebook feed this afternoon: “We are very proud of the work that Deborah as done (writing the platform) … and we will make sure that the language is implemented.”

It’s clear that Sanders travels to Indian Country changed him. His observations and experiences are bound to stir reform. As Jane Sanders also told Parker today: “He didn’t win the presidency, but he’s a senator.” And now, perhaps, a lawmaker. A lawmaker that will be most effective if he has an ally in the White House.

There is one more thing I would like to see Sanders do: Invest his time and considerable fundraising ability in helping elect five Native American Democrats to Congress. He could especially make a difference in the next few days by raising money for Victoria Steele in Arizona and Joe Pakootas in Washington state. These two candidates have primary elections in August. Both would make great members of Congress (and allies for any Sanders’ legislative agenda).

Ideally Congress is only the start. What about a Sanders’ grassroots movement that supports Native progressive candidates for legislatures, county commissions, and city governments.

What about Sanders’ supporters? (Some of whom continue to maintain they will never support Hillary Clinton. Several are even posting how disgusted they are with Sanders for giving up too easily.) So the options are: Don’t vote in November; vote for Donald J. Trump; vote for a third party candidate; or vote for Clinton.

Staying home and voting for Trump are essentially the same option. A Trump presidency is not the same as Clinton.

Three stark differences:

* Clinton would tip the scales toward climate action; Trump would favor oil, gas and coal.
* Clinton would boost Indian health programs and Medicaid expansion; Trump promises repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
* She would build on the legacy of President Obama; Trump promises a rollback of the past eight years which he calls a failure.

On top of all that: There is a vacancy on the Supreme Court and conservatives would be eager to reshape abortion law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and tribal jurisdiction.

What about voting for Jill Stein and the Green Party or the Gary Johnson-Bill Weld Libertarian Ticket?

Philosophically that makes a lot of sense. I’d really like to see third parties be included in the presidential debates and the national conversation. This country ought to have more than two governing parties. But how do you get there and how does it impact the prospect of a Trump presidency? The fact is only two parties are at present competitive. It’s a wild card vote. In some states, say, Montana, or Utah, it could help Clinton pull off a surprise win. But in Florida or other swing states it’s really an unknown about where the votes would come from (Trump or Clinton). Down the road this is one of those structural electoral problems we need to fix. Our vote should count if we go Green. But not in 2016.

Sanders said as much today. He’s quoted in The Washington Post saying, “If we were in Europe right now, in Germany or elsewhere, the idea of coalition politics of different parties coming together — you’ve got a left party, you’ve got a center-left party, coming together against the center-right party. That’s not unusual. That happens every day. We don’t have that. We have and have had [two parties] for a very long period of time — and I know a little bit about this, as the longest serving independent member of Congress.”

Will  the people who followed Sanders do that once again. Most will. Some won’t. (My first question to those who say, #neverhillary is where do you live? In some states you really do have a free vote. But in a swing state? No.)

So there the Democrats have a nominee — and it’s not Bernie Sanders. Yet he has chapters to add to his story.

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 credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

#NativeVote16 – Story ideas range from climate issues to “the Native primary.”

  
Housekeeping. Planning day.

I am still researching and writing the energy and climate (part 3) post. I am giving a speech next week on this topic, so it’s a good time to finish the piece. There is a lot going on and it has election ramifications, especially because more federal spending will be required to keep up with damage and infrastructure needs associated with climate change.

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Another piece I’d like to write soon is about how a third-place finisher could win the White House. As the presidential field narrows, we could be returning to the historical problem of a split electoral college. If there are three candidates and one of those candidates *cough * Ted Cruz * cough * can win a large state such as Texas that would be enough to prevent the other two candidates from winning 270 electoral votes. IF that happens, the House gets to pick the next president. The only constitutional criteria is that the next president will be chosen from top 3 finishers.

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I have a cool idea. If I can find the time. So what if I pulled the precinct votes from Iowa, Nevada, and So Carolina, and created a “NativeVote16” primary election? I could add to a spreadsheet after every new primary. This would be a look at how Indian Country wants to be the next president using actual votes instead of polling.  (Any data wonks want to help?)

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I am still working on a story/data/chart for state legislative candidates. I talked to a couple of candidates last week who told me they would be filing soon and I should hold off. I think I might wait until late March to get as many names as possible. (Previous story here.)

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Finally I am pitching a couple of video stories to networks. Two purposes: Broader audience for #NativeVote16 stories. And, it will help me finance more stories. I’d especially like to have enough resources to cover party conventions this year. (Either that or I need to find a summer job.) (Previous video here. )

I posted a book outline and I have had talks with several book publishers and editors. There is not a lot of interest; mostly because of the time factor. I could produce the book myself (like I did with The Last Great Battle) but I would need to find outside money to make that happen. I am reviewing foundations that are interested in democracy & voting to see if that might be possible.

Feel free to weigh in with comments, suggestions and ideas.

That’s enough reflection. Back to work.

— Mark Trahant