The story is not over: When the Native press is strong … so is Indian Country

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country Today, a national voice for Indian Country, went dark while its owners look for a new buyer or a new business model. The “press,” even a “digital press” is the story.

It’s true that most tribal leaders have been annoyed by media, including tribal media, from time to time. It’s the nature of our roles. When we in journalism are at our best, we’re independent. And tribal leaders have a different charge; to govern. That sometimes puts us into conflict — at least a little bit.

But in the long arc of history both roles are crucial. In fact: Some of the best days in Indian Country occurred during periods of a vigorous and independent press. And, at the same time, some of our darkest days took place when there were few national voices.

To be blunt: An independent press is a pain in the ass. Especially for tribal leaders. But the alternative, darkness, is far, far worse.

One such period was the Indian Removal Era.

The Cherokee Nation was one of many tribes that had an independent press in the 1830s as it was facing the challenge of President Andrew Jackson and ultimately the removal from tribal homelands.

The editor of The Cherokee Phoenix was often at odds with tribal leaders. In 1832 he resigned as editor because  he believed he could not do his job properly. His duty, as he saw it, was to “reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people – our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

This is a simple definition of the role of the tribal press, an instigator of discourse. The power of the tribal press, then, should follow once the people have reached a definite and satisfactory conclusion.

The evils faced by the Cherokees during Boudinot’s time were among the darkest, but they were not the only dangers before us.

I am interested in the pattern suggested by Boudinot: the warning of dark clouds, followed by community discourse, and, if possible, a community-based satisfactory conclusion.

The issue Boudinot wanted debated – the federal government’s desire to relocate the Cherokee Nation – was about as dire as can be imagined, but other schemes have, to varying degrees, also threatened the very prospect of Indian survival.

Consider how some fifty years ago many tribes were faced with removal in a political context – termination. There were a few voices of dissent from tribal media, including a newspaper published at Menominee. But the voices were primarily local.

In 1952 there was no national Indian newspaper or medium of any kind.

So it wasn’t huge news when Congress enacted House Resolution 108 calling for the termination of tribes that were “ready.”

And to get ready, various provisions were inserted into routine legislation that required tribal governments to prepare a plan to accept termination. Imagine that. As part of your government’s regular funding stream, the tribe would need to prepare documents planning termination.

This would have been a great story; had there been a national Native press.

One of the tribes ordered to prepare a termination plan was the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state. A termination plan was required in order as part of legislation that included title to tribal lands lands. Most tribal members probably didn’t think much about termination – at least at first – but in the decade that followed pro-termination supporters gained support of the tribal business council, telling tribal members that termination would mean a sale of all the reservation’s assets and a distribution of those assets to tribal members. In other words: folks were promised they would be rich.

Beginning in the early 1960s, U.S. Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, introduced Colville termination bills only to be blocked by the House of Representatives. And, at the same time, a pro-termination tribal business council built up a solid majority.

In October 1966, the tribe asked its members this question:

“Do you favor termination and liquidation of the tribal owned reservation assets at a fair value with the proceeds distributed equally to the members of the tribes?”

The result was one-sided: More than two-thirds of the membership approved of termination.

The Colville people, then, had gone on record for termination.

Chairman Narcisse Nicolson, Jr. said it was time for the Colville people to end their relationship with Washington, to stop taking money from the BIA, and to terminate the reservation.

He said the case was clear because “with only a relatively few exceptions, the tribal families of today are self-supporting.” He added, “Lack of employment, to the degree that it exists, is largely due to character faults which cannot be cured by paternalism.”

In Washington, D.C., BIA Commissioner Robert L. Bennett, even though he was personally opposed to termination, said he would “honor and carry out any decisions that are made by the people of the tribe, whether or not this may be in agreement or disagreement with what may happen to be particular policy of the Bureau.”

The stars seemed aligned. Think of the players on board:  Tribal members, its governing body, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Even the Congress was set. Senator Henry Jackson could be counted on to introduce the Colville termination bill again; this time, some thought, it followed by House enactment.

We can only imagine what it must have been like: Every major political force, the state, a powerful senator, the tribal council, and, perhaps, even a majority of tribal members, all wanted termination.

Only someone forgot to explain to Lucy Covington and her allies that it was a done deal.

In 1966 when that membership poll was taken, Covington was a minority member of the tribal council along with Frank George, Paschal Sherman, and a few others.

There were many voices challenging the wisdom of termination.

One of the tools that she used in this fight: A tribal newspaper. She started “Our Heritage,” a newspaper with the mission of informing tribal members about the issues. She would lead a quiet campaign to quiet what she called “the present fever and fervor for termination.”

And like Standing Rock, there was national call put out for writers, cartoonists, and journalists to come (at their own expense) to chronicle this important moment.

Chuck Trimble once wrote why he went. Covington “enlisted me after I gave a brief talk on the birthing plans of the American Indian Press Association at the 1970 NCAI convention in Anchorage, Alaska. She asked if I would come to Colville and help put together a newspaper. She made no offers of compensation for travel and expenses. The Press Association was not yet established and there were no funds for travel or anything else; so I went at my own expense. And when I arrived in Spokane where she met me, she sat me down in a room at the Indian Center there and told me what she expected of me. She wanted a newspaper that would tell what a tribe means to its people, and its true worth to them in terms of land, natural resources, and most of all their cultural heritage. She wanted the newspaper to be called Our Heritage, and she even described the logo she wanted for the masthead. It would be a pair of hands holding together the shape of the Colville Reservation. The logo would signify that the future of their reservation, indeed their nation, was in the hands of the people, not in the U.S. Government or the State of Washington, or anyone else.

“I was not familiar with what termination of a tribe entailed, and how it was carried out. I thought the U.S. Congress unilaterally determined that a tribe’s unique trust relationship with the Federal government would be severed, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would execute the congressional order. When I learned that the tribe, through its elected leaders, had to approve the dissolution of their own nation, and that a majority on the existing Colville Council was forcefully behind the measure, I felt disheartened. Gaining an anti-termination majority on the Council meant internecine warfare, and Indian against Indian was always mean and messy.”

But Trimble wrote — and he drew cartoons. And Our Heritage was published.

Our Heritage profiled candidates opposed to termination and reported on the legislative battles in Washington about the advancing termination bills.

The anti-termination side won on May 8, 1971. Nicholson was defeated in his district, Omak. He was replaced by a council member who was opposed to termination, joined by a new majority of like-minded representatives.

Mel Tonasket, then-thirty years old, was the elected by the business council as the chairman. The new business council called for more federal support, closed a reservation lake to outsiders and voted to take back law enforcement powers that had been ceded to the state of Washington.

The new council also went further, claiming the inherent power of a government through an affirmation of tribal sovereignty.

And even a longtime supporters of termination reversed course. Sen. Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, in 1972 introduced a repeal of the termination resolution and recast himself as a champion of tribal governments and Indian people.

The dark clouds of termination almost ended the Colville reservation and that tribe’s unique relationship with the federal government (something that did occur in dozens of other tribal communities).

But the danger of termination was identified by both the tribe’s political leadership and the press. This fit Boudinot’s model: A description of the dangers, followed by community discourse, until a satisfactory conclusion was reached.

I recall a tribal politician speaking at the National Congress of American Indians. I am not sure who he was nor where the meeting was but I remember him identifying the tribal news media as “war correspondents.” This image stuck with me because it is so telling: Tribal political leaders identified us as soldiers in the defense of Indian country. Our work is important when we serve that war effort, helping to defeat the enemy. But that metaphor suggests that when journalism moves closer to home, when we do stories that aid the enemy, then not so much.

“Our Heritage” fit this notion perfectly. The newspaper had one purpose: stopping termination. And, at the beginning of the termination era there was no national Native press. But at the end, when tribes won, the press was actively helping tribal citizens reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I remember that NCAI speech about “war correspondents” was because of when it was given in the late 1970s. This was a time when most tribal governments truly felt under siege, it was the era the “backlash” era.

And it was a story that most of us working for tribal newspapers tried to fully cover.

“So strong is this threat and so pervasive is its national presence that Indians are referring to it as ‘the new Indian war.’ Its sources, most observers of the national Indian scene agree, are the results of that very progress; in particular, the long and significant train of court victories in the 1970s upholding tribal rights,” wrote Hopi journalist Rose Robinson from Washington, D.C. “Whatever its sources, white backlash is, by every measure, the major concern of people today.”

The backlash was promoted by organizations with names that suggested a noble calling: South Dakotans for Civil Liberties; Montanans Opposed to Discrimination and the Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities. These groups defined American Indians as “special citizens” who, because of treaty rights, were getting a better deal than the rest of the nation. A book, “Indian Treaties: America’s Nightmare,” was sent by the group to members of Congress, the secretary of Interior and other Washington officials. “The liberal treatment of minorities has reached unheard of proportions in denying equal rights to all citizens of our so-called democracy,” a brochure for the book said.

“Sportsmens (sic) – organizations – fishermen – hunters – land owners – commercial fishermen and just plain tax paying citizens who have just about had it with Indian take-overs make up the membership of ICERR.”

The backlash was a nationwide movement that discounted two centuries of federal-Indian policy. “That the Indians’ claims are being given any legitimacy at all is nonsensical,” wrote a columnist in the Boston Herald American about the land claims in Maine. “Whatever happened 200 years ago, the culprits were not the current land owners, so there is no justification for punishing them.”

“After so many quiet years, what has got into the Indians?” asked a two-page essay in Time. “Probably no other country would take quite so seriously land claims that propose, in effect, the impossible rolling back of history. The inherent absurdity of such a proposition might be clearer, say, in a suggestion that Australia be handed back to the aborigines. …Congress should be able to be fair without suffering the delusion that the country can really be given back to the Indians. The time for that passed forever with the vanishing of the pioneers who took it from them.”

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The movement had one goal: abrogate treaties. These efforts were on two legislative tracks: The first was led by a U.S. Rep. Jack Cunningham, R-Washington, who introduced bills directly calling for treaty abrogation; and, the second track was more moderate legislation that was introduced by a U.S. Rep. Lloyd Meeds.  Meeds, a Democrat, was also from Washington state and his role was interesting because he had once been a supporter of tribes – even honored by the National Congress of American Indians for his work on the Hill.

The Interstate Congress dismissed Indians as “treaty Americans” or “first-class citizens” and it said it had no objection to “being treaty Americans or full-fledged American citizens, but we do object to them claiming both. “Until they decide what they want to be, treaty Americans or first-class citizens, but not both, they will feel the bite of the backlash, and it will get stronger until a more equitable solution is found.”

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The Indian Country Today of that era was Wassaja, a San Francisco-based, national newspaper. Wassaja covered the annual convention of the anti-treaty group because it represented, “the first step toward abrogation.”

Wassaja – and most tribal newspapers – devoted lots of space and attention to the backlash movement. Tribal leaders saw the threat and worked to build coalitions to defeat the ideas behind the backlash, as well as their representatives in Congress.

Again, though, the dark clouds were identified and community discourse was disseminated through the native press. Indeed, the leaders of that era agreed with the label of “new Indian wars,” and even promised a literal battle if things proceeded.

Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., for example, called for an emergency summit of all tribal leaders to develop a strategy. He said that if the backlash reached its logical conclusion, taking Indian people backwards, then Indians might return to waging war. “I don’t think anyone wants to go back to that situation.”

MacDonald’s rhetoric was harsh, but his position was not unique. He was joined on the effort in groups ranging from the conservative National Tribal Chairman’s Association to the American Indian Movement.

Discourse prevailed. Tribal leaders developed a successful strategy and their voices reached tribal and U.S. citizens. The national Native press was taking notes.

The termination era as well as the backlash era shared a language. Termination supporters wanted to “free the Indians.” The Interstate Congress proclaimed the goal of “equal rights.”

Of course in a large part what drove both of these efforts was competition over scarce natural resources. All of the tribes that were terminated had a resource that someone wanted  — often timber. And the so-called equal rights effort of the Interstate Congress were led by hunters and fishers who objected to the “preferential” rights of treaty hunting and fishing.

In both of these examples, too, there were characters willing to advance the ideas. Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins was the champion of termination. And the backlash had Jack Cunningham and Howard Grey (once identified in Wassaja as the “der Fuhrer of ICERR).

That leads me to the next threat: Slade Gorton.

Slade Gorton – who was again from Washington state – took the ideas of an early generation and led them to new, sophisticated heights.

Some context. It doesn’t take a lot of calculating to see that so much of this backlash and termination support came from Washington state. Why Washington? One reason was the intense battle for salmon fishing rights – and the favorable ruling by the federal courts.

Columnist John Mohawk wrote in another national publication, Native Americas magazine, that Gorton was “an anti-Indian activist all his political life. He fought against Indian treaty rights when he was attorney general for his home state, and he leads perennial attacks against Indian rights in the Senate.”

But unlike Cunningham, or even Meeds, Gorton developed a more sophisticated attack against tribal interests. He used his power as a Senator – and later as an appropriations committee leader – to limit how federal dollars might be used to support tribal rights.

He occasionally proposed radical rewriting of federal Indian law, advancing his idea that tribes were social clubs and not legitimate governments.

“Over time, Gorton settled into the style of the Senate, where tone trumps content most days of the week,” wrote Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Harjo. “He began using the scalpel more than the machete, but was ever-focused on his task: undercutting federal Indian law.  He was gaining surgical precision, along with seniority and clout on key committees for energy and natural resources, budget and commerce, science and transportation.

“After the 1996 election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced that he would step down as chair of the Senate’s select committee on Indian affairs. Gorton was next in line for the job. The sound of alarm from Indian country was loud and effective. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., interceded and Gorton withdrew in favor of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Republican from Colorado, who became the first Native American to head the Indian panel.”

But Gorton continued his political attacks whenever and when ever he could be effective.

Here is where another difference emerges between Gorton and his predecessors, such as Jack Cunningham or Arthur Watkins. Instead of being a character in a larger drama, Gorton became the lead in the play.

An intertribal coalition built was launched to “Dump Slade.” And when someone said those two very words, nearly everyone in Indian Country knew exactly what was meant. Gorton was a modern-day Custer – and his defeat was essential for Indian Country’s survival. Gorton became the issue.

I remember a conversation I had with Joe Delacruz at an Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ meeting. He promised that Slade would be defeated. We’re raising money, we’re building a coalition, he told me, and we’re going to win.

Delacruz was right. The Dump Slade effort worked; Maria Cantwell was elected in his place.

And because Slade was the actor, the issue went away as far as tribal discourse was concerned.

But did Slade really go away? Well, if you think about him as a central character in a drama, then, yes, perhaps.

But what of his ideas? We face many of those same notions today. Even his idea that tribes are more like social organizations than governments was effectively advanced by the Supreme Court in decision after decision. Starting with the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist the Supreme Court quietly transformed Indian law. And not in a good way.

Another story I’d like to tell is from Alaska. The community of Point Hope had a huge problem in 1962. The United States government had this wacky idea of testing nuclear devices in their homeland. There was a removal plan. The government had decided that Project Chariot made sense and should go forward.

The Arctic Slope Native Association turned to a young Inupiat artist by the name of Howard Rock and asked him to start a newspaper. The Tundra Times was born in October 1962.

“He was the most soft-spoken man,” said reporter Tom Richards, who worked at the Tundra Times from 1968 to 1974. “But he had tremendous impact with just a few words.”

The Tundra Times followed Boudinot’s model perfectly. The paper warned about the dangers, the community came together and talked over these matters, and then reached a satisfactory conclusion. The Atomic Energy Commission’s Project Chariot was no more.

But Rock did not stop telling the story. He thought Alaska Natives ought to be a stronger, inter-tribal community. The newspaper’s masthead reinforced its vision of Native harmony that eventually led to the creation of the Alaska Federation of Natives. As AFN said: Rock, through his newspaper, unified Alaska Natives by “knowing the hearts and minds of the people.”

“Perhaps more than anyone else, he (Rock) helped weld together the frontier state’s 55,000 Natives for their successful years-long fight to win the largest aboriginal land claims settlement in American history,” wrote Stan Patty of the Seattle Times. He added that Rock was their voice; at times about the only calm voice when crescendos of dissent threatened to tear Alaska apart.

And that led — along with the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay — and to a modern treaty, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Rock’s Tundra Times had a national voice. Its correspondent in Washington, Tom Richards, worked alongside other native journalists at the key moment in history. The Tundra Times was no cheerleader. It talked about the good of ANCSA and warned readers about some of the consequences.

“Let’s turn it around and look at the real situation,” Richards wrote. “The natives are being forced to give up their land under the traditional American principle of manifest destiny and all they’re asking is a fair shake.”

We lost the Tundra Times in on December 16, 1991. Its announcement said the board voted to “suspend publication” until a March meeting.

Suspensions, rarely result in a re-start. But the financial problems of Tundra Times were well known. The paper had been writing about its own challenges for some two decades. Its readers were familiar with the challenges.

That’s not the case with Indian Country Today. It’s darkness was a surprise, one that left little time to explore options from a broader civic community. This is a fail.

But that also brings me to Standing Rock.

As we all know, Standing Rock was a social media story. News was instant. Shared, reshared, and liked on Facebook.

It’s interesting some of the same elements from Standing Rock were present at Alcatraz or Daybreak Star or Frank’s Landing … but what was different was social media and a viral connection across Indian Country. Technology even played a role: A few months before Standing Rock Idle No More generated the same kinds of stories scattered first across Canada and then worldwide. But one explosive difference in Standing Rock and Idle No More was Facebook live. Someone could turn a camera on and generate an audience of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. We are all related, we are all connected.

Social media — well, Facebook — can even take credit for informing the President of the United States. A year ago tomorrow — imagine that — a year ago President Obama was asked about  the Dakota Access Pipeline and the #NoDAPL movement at Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative  town hall. This social media story popped the presidential bubble. It alerted him to an issue that he could no longer ignore.

A social media story to be sure. And important because we all remember the many, many stories asking, where were the mainstream reporters? Why was Standing Rock not the front page, network TV news story that was required? When a few armed protesters take center stage in Oregon and Nevada and it’s a big story; but when thousands of people come to stand with Standing Rock …  it’s only occasional news.

So it was a social media story.

But here’s the thing. If you go back and look at the many social media stories the ones that were the most shared, the most liked, and most respected, were stories generated by the press, and often that was Indian Country Today.

The reason is clear and easy: No one had to explain to editors at Indian Country Today why it was a story. As one editor told me: “We knew we had to blow out our budget for this one.”

Early on Valerie Taliman was on site working with reporters and letting them know that Indian Country Today was going to extraordinary lengths. I have counted more than a dozen bylines on this story, including my own. Jenni Monet was compelled to leave a teaching post and write full time from here. And to this day she faces criminal, legal peril for her reporting — something that should never be allowed in a country with First Amendment protection. “Congress shall make no law … “ yet a prosecutor in Morton County is doing just that, making up a law.

This was a story of a generation — and Indian Country Today answered. 

But it’s also a story without an ending. The newspaper helped tribal citizens across the country consider the darkness before us and the evils with which we are threatened. It helped us talk over these matters. But we still have a lot of work to do before we come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.

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

(This is a speech Mark Trahant gave to the Tribal Leaders Summit September 6, 2017, in Bismarck, North Dakota.)

 

 

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

September will be a mess in Congress; budget, spending and debt fights ahead

One-party government? Get real.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

September is going to be a mess. Congress must sort out some really complicated fiscal issues. There is the budget, an increase in the debt limit, how much to spend on federal programs and services, and, if there’s time, tax reform.

This should be easy in a one-party government. Republicans come up with a budget plan. Then the House acts, the Senate does its thing, and President Donald J. Trump signs the idea into law. Easy. Except there is no Republican majority in Congress (other than the R listed by members’ names.)

The House is made up of at least three factions, or parties, and no majority. (The three groups are: Republicans, Democrats, and the more conservative House Freedom Caucus.) So in order to gather enough votes to pass a budget, or any other of the challenges, at least two of the three factions have to agree on a plan.

The Senate has its own divisions within the Republican Party. (The very reason why a Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act has not yet become law.)

And the White House is not on the same page either. The president proposed a stingy budget that’s been pretty much rejected by members of the House and the Senate (except the more conservative elements such as the House Freedom Caucus.)

For example the Trump administration proposed budget calls for $4.7 billion for the Indian Health Service, a cut of some $300 million or 6 percent of the agency’s budget. But a House spending plan calls for an increase of $97 million over last year’s levels. Indeed, the Appropriations Committee that funds IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to spend a total of $4.3 billion more than the president requested on programs under its jurisdiction. (In general: The president’s budget reflects significant budget cuts across Indian Country, according to analysis by the National Congress of American Indians.)

The Senate will come up with its own spending plan. Then, in theory, the two houses will resolve their differences and agree on how much the federal government should spend next year (and the president can go along or veto the legislation and start all over).

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But no. That’s not how Congress is actually legislating these days. More often Congress agrees to a temporary spending plan based on last year’s budget, the Continuing Resolution. That’s an easier sell to members because it represents a last minute, throw up your hands, and do something, approach. The other alternative is a government shutdown. President Trump tweeted in May that “our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”

Yes, the budget is a mess. Period. Even take the word, “budget.” That’s a proposal from the president. But in Congress a “budget” is a spending limit that Congress imposes on itself. It sets a ceiling that each of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees have to live with. And, more important right now, the budget sets the rules for debate so the Senate can pass some legislation (such as the health care bill) with only 50 votes. (Most bills need 60 votes to stop a filibuster from stopping the process.)

Back to the congressional budget. Last month the Budget Committee approved a plan that would cut domestic spending by $2.9 trillion over the next decade. The full House will vote on this plan when it returns. It’s a bleak document that would end up slashing many of the programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives. Remember the appropriations committees would still spend the money; but the budget would act as an overall cap.

This budget plan starts off with historically low federal spending followed by even more severe budget cuts between now and 2027. To show how out of touch this budget is, it includes program cuts for Medicaid that were a part of the failed health care legislation. (What’s changed? Nothing.) This bill tips toward the conservatives who want more spending cuts to be sooner, as in right now.

That makes the problem political. There are probably not enough votes to make this budget so. A few Republicans don’t see this harsh approach as good government. And even if the votes are found in the House, the Senate is another story. Think health care.

And if this budget cannot pass, it’s not likely there is another one that would. Democrats in the House say: “Congress cannot continue to underfund these crucial investments … (and) without relief from these spending caps, vital government programs are facing significant cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would have significant effects on American families all across the country.”

And the budget is only one fiscal crisis. Another issue that is immediate and serious involves the debt limit. That’s the amount of money the federal government can borrow is currently set at $19.85 trillion (federal debt exceeds that level now, but the Secretary of Treasury can basically shuffle money from different accounts). Conservatives want spending cuts as part of any deal to increase the debt limit. As Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, told MSNBC. A debt limit increase without spending cuts is “like having a credit card and saying, ‘I’ve reached my limit, I’m just going to change the limit higher without changing any of my spending habits.’”

But, like on the budget, the votes are not there. (Especially in the Senate where 60 votes will be needed.)

This is tricky because the Republican administration understands what failure could do to the country. Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is now supporting a debt limit increase. But when he served in Congress, Mulvaney said he was willing to risk a default to force a discussion on spending.

In both the House and the Senate votes from Democrats will be needed to pass the debt limit. But will there be enough Republicans.

If Congress does not pass the debt limit, the United States would be “catastrophic.” And, almost immediately, this failure would impact federal budgets because interest rates would spike upward. Interest rates are already the fastest growing part of the federal budget and a sharp increase in rates would add significantly to the total federal debt. In other words: By voting against a debt limit increase, Congress would make the debt problem worse. Far worse.

But Republicans have campaigned against a debt limit increase for a long time. It’s going to be one tough vote.

In case you’re keeping score:

  • Republican leaders plus Democrats will be needed to increase the debt limit.
  • Most Republicans including the House Freedom Caucus will need to vote for the budget and appropriations bills.
  • Or, those budget and spending bills will have to include more Democratic priorities to win that party’s support.

So yes, September is going to be a mess. And after the budget, spending bills, and debt limit is complete, there’s still tax reform on the agenda. Yet another mess.

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

 

 

 

 

Obesity in Indian Country is mostly the same; why that’s incremental progress

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IHS Diabetes Fact Sheet, published July 2017.

A fundamental question about government

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The most fundamental question about government is this: Does it work? When does government — tribal, state or federal — actually make a difference in our lives?

There are two ways to answer that question, data and story. Data tells what happens over time, a reference point that ought to provide the proof of self-government. But story is what we tell ourselves about what works, and more often, what does not work. Ideally data and story lead us to the same conclusion.

One problem with data is that it measures incremental progress. That should be a good thing. But when telling a story it’s awfully difficult to report that things are kinda, sorta getting better. We humans want clarity, a success story, right? Or even an outright failure.

Yet progress is often measured slowly.

We all know there is an epidemic of diabetes in Native American communities. Yet it’s also true that adult diabetes rates for American Indian and Alaska Natives have not increased in recent years, and there has been a significant drop in both vision-related diseases and kidney failures. Incremental progress.

Now a new study, one that is built on a massive amount of data, reports that obesity among Native American youth is mostly the same.

“The prevalence of overweight and obesity among AI/AN children in this population may have stabilized, while remaining higher than prevalence for US children overall,” according to a study published last month by the American Journal of Public Health. The study concluded that American Indian and Alaska Native youth still have higher rates of obesity than the total population, but those rates have remained constant for a decade. In other words: The problem is not getting worse. (At least, mostly.) This report is remarkable because it reflects a huge amount of data – reports from at least 184,000 active patients in the Indian health system – from across geographic regions and age groups. Most scientific studies rely on a small sample group, making it difficult to compare regions or even break down the data by gender or age. (So Native Americans who are treated outside of the Indian health system would not be included in this data.)

The results: “In 2015, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in AI/AN children aged 2 to 19 years was 18.5% and 29.7%, respectively. Boys had higher obesity prevalence than girls (31.5% vs 27.9%). Children aged 12 to 19 years had a higher prevalence of over- weight and obesity than younger children. The AI/AN children in our study had a higher prevalence of obesity than US children overall in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Results for 2006 through 2014 were similar.”

The findings show that the problem is not getting worse. And that is incremental progress.

To put this report into a policy context, think about the hundreds of programs that are designed to get Native American youth more active. Or the education campaigns to improve diet and to encourage exercise that occur every day across Indian Country.

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This is timely data because Congress must soon reauthorize the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. And this report is evidence that $150 million program works and it’s also worth a continued investment by taxpayers. (Remember: Chronic diseases, such as diabetes, are by far the most expensive part of health care. Every dollar spent on prevention saves many, many more down the road.)

The goal of course must be a decline in overweight and obesity statistics, not just stability. (And one warning sign in the report is that there was a slight increase in severe obesity even while the general trend is stable.)

The report, by Ann Bullock, MD, Karen Sheff, MS, Kelly Moore, MD, and Spero Manson, PhD, said there are many reasons for a higher obesity prevalence in American Indian and Alaska Native children but also said this was a “relatively new phenomenon seen only in the past few generations. The explanations range from the rapid transition from a physically active subsistence lifestyle to the wage economy and sedentary lifestyle. Add to that the risk factors of poverty, stress, and trauma.

“Indeed, many AI/ AN people live in social and physical environments that place them at higher risk than many other US persons for exposure to traumatic events,” the study found. “Among children in a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study, the experience of numerous negative life events in childhood increased risk for overweight by age 15 years. Another contributing factor to obesity in children living in lower-income households is food insecurity, which is the lack of dependable access to sufficient quantities of high-quality foods. Even before birth, stress and inadequate nutrition during pregnancy alter metabolic programming, increasing the risk for later obesity in the offspring.”

Because obesity is a relatively new phenomenon seen only in the past few generations, there is much that can be done to reverse the trend. And that starts with making sure the problem is not getting worse. Then we can get healthier. Kinda, sorta, at least.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you hear the one about the Senator raising concerns about Indian health?

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Sen. John McCain votes yes on the Senate’s Motion to Proceed, then attacks the process, only to vote yes on the first bill that failed his test of regular order. Quite a day. (Photo via Senate video)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Senate is now going through 20 hours of debate on a House Resolution 1628 to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But the House bill was stripped of every word except the title. Now the idea is to come up with the right language to reach 50 votes (so when like the Motion to Proceed, Vice President Mike Pence can break the tie and vote yes).

The first proposal, Senate Amendment 267, had all sorts of problems on the floor. The Senate’s Parliamentarian ruled that parts of the bill did not get a score from the Congressional Budget Office and other parts violated budget rules. So 60 votes, not 50 were needed for this version to pass. But the Republican leadership wasn’t even close to 50 votes — Nine Republicans voted against it.

Including Arizona Sen. John McCain who just a few hours before said he wasn’t happy with any of the legislative proposals. Think about this. He interrupted his cancer treatment (taxpayer funded health care) then gave a stirring speech about the break down of civility in the Senate. He said he would vote against the bills as presented, and then, votes yes anyway. Quite a day.  And so much for his words. I’ll admit: I thought McCain meant what he said.

Then at least McCain earned respect and praise from President Donald J. Trump. He tweeted: Thank you for coming to D.C. for such a vital vote. Congrats to all Rep. We can now deliver grt healthcare to all Americans!”

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Now that’s something — as is the process itself.

This week’s Senate debate on TV will be exciting. Seriously. There will be many hours ahead of members speaking to an empty chamber about why the Affordable Care Act works — or why it should be repealed. (And lots of images of staff shuffling papers on camera.) Great theater, right? Then every once in a while (about the time paint dries) there will be a call for a vote and the dramatic calling of each senator’s name for a vote.

There are two main versions that will surface soon. The first is a repeal — or at least as much of a repeal as possible with 50 votes — that’s been proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. That proposal has little chance.

Then later in the week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will propose an amendment that they’re calling a “Skinny Repeal.” It would eliminate some taxes, a few more regulations, but leaves Medicaid alone. It’s supposed to be something for both moderates who want to leave Medicaid alone and for conservatives who want a repeal. Ha! And remember: If this version passes the Senate the bill will move to a conference committee with the House. That’s where the Medicaid cuts will come back. This is a phony negotiating plank.

As the debate unfolds, the Senate is in a way making the case for why we need Native Americans in the legislative process. There will be all kinds of talk about what the law does to Americans, to the poor, to taxpayers, to just about every constituent group in America. What’s really needed though is for one Republican senator to explain about the Indian Health system and what havoc all of these proposals would wreak. (Last week several Democrats did just that.) One majority party senator could say the Indian Health Service has never been fully funded, despite treaty promises, so why strip millions of dollars away? Or ask about Indian children when more than half are covered by Medicaid. Or show why Indian Country needs the jobs that have been created (and will be lost) by these proposals. Better yet: One Native Senator could use data to prove that Medicaid works.

Indian Country deserves to be in this debate. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been a key opponent of the Republican leadership’s health care legislation. It’s mostly about Medicaid. I am sure that it’s also due to her support of the Alaska Native medical system. She gets it.

But Murkowski will pay a political price for her votes, at least in a primary election. But then she’s gone through that before. And won.  Not long after the Senate vote on the Motion to Proceed, the Alaska Republican Party said Murkowski abandoned them. Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said the “repeal of Obamacare is non-negotiable.” (Funny: I feel the same way about the Senate alternatives.)

And so the party talks about possible consequences for Murkowski. Babcock said her vote put at risk new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (would that be true) and said her Energy Committee “chairmanship could be at risk.”

And President Donald J. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: “Senator of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

So will there be punishment? I would not be so sure. Remember the Republican majority is thin. As I reported last week: Three senators switch sides and it’s a new Senate.  Two are already really, unhappy. So the way to make it three is for Republicans to continue to attack their own members.

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

 

 

Senate is blind: Healthcare vote minus a draft, public hearings, or common sense

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) brief the press on the upcoming vote on a repeal and replacement for the Affordable Care Act. (Photo via McConnell Press Office on Twitter.)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Here we go again. Another week and the United States Senate is ready to vote on legislation to remake the entire healthcare system, including Indian health. The Senate will do this without a draft circulated for debate, public hearings, or common sense.

So what does the replacement bill look like at this point? I have no clue. Neither do the 100 senators who will make that call. As Sen. John Cornyn (one of the managers for the bill) put it: Knowing the healthcare plan ahead of the vote is a “luxury we don’t have.”

Here is what President Donald J. Trump tweeted over the weekend: “The Republican Senators must step up to the plate and, after 7 years, vote to Repeal and Replace. Next, Tax Reform and Infrastructure. WIN!”

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So there will be a vote on legislation to at least repeal the Affordable Care Act. “We have decided to hold the vote to open debate on Obamacare repeal early next week. The Obamacare repeal legislation will ensure a stable, two-year transition period, which will allow us to wipe the slate clean and start over with real patient-centered healthcare reform. This is the same legislation that a majority of the Senate voted to send to the president in 2015. Now, we thankfully have a president in office who will sign it. So we should send it to him,” said Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

But a straight repeal is complicated by Senate rules. The Senate Majority Leader is relying on the process of reconciliation (essentially matching the legislation to an existing budget) because that only requires a majority, or 50 votes. Most bills need 60 votes to stop a filibuster. Last week the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, said that defunding of Planned Parenthood, abortion coverage, and restrictions on insurance coverage does not meet that test and still required 60 voters. Same thing for the Alaska or rural exception, it’s a no go. But Senate Republicans were quick to say that any draft language (which is still missing from action) could be rewritten. Or Republicans could overrule the parliamentarian on the floor which would cause all sorts of future problems governing.

The Senate’s parliamentarian is a great example of the institutions of Congress pushing back on the Republican proposals. I don’t think it’s ideology; it’s incompetence. (As I have written before there is a conservative approach to healthcare reform, but we have not seen that yet.) The Congressional Budget Office said last week that the big ticket in this debate is Medicaid. Remember the proposals in the House and Senate go far beyond just repealing the Affordable Care Act because the proposals would fundamentally restructure Medicaid.

According to CBO: “By 2026, spending for that program would be reduced by 26 percent … About three-quarters of that reduction would result from scaling back the expansion of eligibility enacted in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In 2026, for people who are made newly eligible under the ACA (certain adults under the age of 65 whose income is less than or equal to 138 percent of the federal poverty level [FPL]), Medicaid spending would be reduced by 87 percent, from $134 billion to $17 billion—mainly because the penalty associated with the individual mandate would be repealed and the enhanced federal matching rate for spending on that group would be phased out. As a result of the reduced matching rate, some states would roll back their expansion of eligibility and others that would have expanded eligibility under current law would choose not to do so. All other federal spending on Medicaid in that year would be reduced by 9 percent, from $490 billion to $447 billion.”

This is what pays for the tax cuts in the Republican plans.

Rolling back Medicaid expansion and the traditional Medicaid program would significantly reduce funding for the Indian Health Service.

Last week the National Indian Health Board, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Council of Urban Indian Health, wrote McConnell because one of the Senate bills, the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, would change the formula for funding Indian health patients. The three intertribal organizations call the proposal a “radical departure from over 40 years of federal policy” and it “should not be undertaken without nationwide tribal consultation.” The bill’s language reverses a policy where states get a 100 percent reimbursement for patients who get services from the Indian health system. This change, the intertribal organizations said, would “ take away this unique incentive for states to work with tribes to create Medicaid innovations that best support the Indian health system.” States could create new rules that could ignore Indian health as a partner and create new barriers that would sharply reduce funding.

North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, who is chair of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, said the changes would provide “more choice and competition in our health care system, while at the same time insuring that low-income individuals have access to healthcare coverage” via Medicaid or tax credits.

The key thing here: Native Americans could take their insurance (and the state Medicaid dollars) to another provider, reducing funding for IHS. (Competition, you know.)

It would be one more costly strike to an Indian health system that’s already underfunded.

Hoeven said a draft Senate bill also would end the requirement that tribes purchase insurance for employees. Again, the result would be less money for the Indian health system. (And, as the three intertribal organizations point out, this would be done without any tribal consultation.)

Then again the Senate and House bills are designed to strip money from the health system period. And Medicaid is such a rich target. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the total cost to states under the Better Care bill is $519 billion.

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Back to the math and this week’s vote. There are 100 members of the Senate. The 48 Democrats are certain to vote no. And of the 52 Republicans, it’s unlikely Sen. John McCain would leave his cancer treatment in Arizona to vote on a motion to proceed (the opening of the debate and the consideration of amendments). That leaves 51 votes. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is a certain no because she objects to the attacks on Medicaid. That reduces the number to 50 (and 49 no votes). There are lots of questions about Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Capito tweeted: “I will only vote to proceed to repeal legislation if I am confident there is a replacement plan that addresses my concerns.” And Portman said he’ll review whatever bill comes up for a vote. Murkowksi told CNN: “I don’t think it’s asking too much to say give us the time to fairly and critically analyze these numbers. And if you say, well, CBO numbers don’t matter, let’s look at the numbers that you don’t think matter. But it really does make a difference. And these numbers that we’re talking about, these are men and women, these are our families that are being impacted. So let’s please get it right.”

Does that sound like three no votes? Right now, I’d only count all three as firm maybes. Then only one needs to be the 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

 

 

Election update: Rancher, businessman, and, yes, absolutely, a career politician

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Last year about now I was pretty much writing all politics all the time. Indian Country had so many good candidates to offer. Interesting resumes. Better ideas. Campaigns that led to a few wins. A few more losses. And that’s life.

This year I am pretty much writing about health care policy all the time. The Republican plans are so bad — and especially for Indian Country — that they ought be dismissed as dangerous nonsense at every opportunity. As I have written before there is a conservative approach to health care. None of the current proposals are that; they are only a destructive force. (More about that after the Senate releases it latest attempt to reach a 50 vote majority.)

Of course there is also a connection between campaign politics and policy. We’re almost a year away from the next House and Senate election and we’re just starting to get a look at the candidates who will be making policy.

And it turns out there is news.

In Oklahoma, Democrats swept two state legislative seats this week in districts where Donald Trump won handily last year.

One of the seats in the Tulsa area had been held by Rep. Dan Kirby, Creek, and a Republican member of the Native American caucus. He resigned in February following allegations of sexual harassment by staff members. Kirby’s seat was won by a retired teacher, Karen Gaddis (who lost to Kirby in November by 12 percentage points). This had been a safe Republican seat.

A state Senate election (also stemming from a sex scandal) was won Tuesday by a Democrat in the Oklahoma City area.

Oklahoma is one of the most Republican states in the country. So it’s huge to see such a significant shift in a special election. (Unless, that is, it’s just those sex scandals and not the Trump factor.)

One person who ought to be especially concerned by these two election results: Rep. Markwayne Mullin.

Mullin won 70 percent of the vote in his third re-election bid in 2016. Mullins, a member of the Cherokee Nation, first ran in the Tea Party-inspired wave in 2012. He ran against too much government, a repeal of Obamacare, and a silly promise to limit his time in office to three terms.

Now he’s running for his fourth term and some prominent conservatives are unhappy. Former Sen. Tom Coburn told Oklahoma’s KFAQ radio that it was sad because this “nice young man … has drunk the Kool-Aid in Washington.”

It’s funny and prescient. Mullin’s ads said: “A Rancher. A Businessman. Not a politician.” Mullin can hardly say that now. It’s like the great line in the movie “The Candidate” when young Bill McKay is elected governor and his father (who was a governor) tells him: “Bud, you’re a politician.”

Even the story changed. In his early ads, Mullin talks about term limits as an answer to the problem of being an insider in Washington. But in his video explaining why he’s running again, Mullin said — after much prayer — that he’s changing his mind for family reasons. “I’m not hiding from that because we did say we’re going to serve six years, and it was out of true concerns,” he said. But that’s ok now. The family is doing great.

And, like every politician before him, the voters really need him. Just him. Especially during this era of Donald Trump (that is … if the era even lasts until the next election).

Mullin has been the congressional voice for the Trump version of a Native American policy. He praised the Dakota Access Pipeline project and was critical of tribal leaders for opposing it at a hearing in February. “What do you consider meaningful conversations between government-to-government?” Mullins asked Chad Harrison from Standing Rock. His reply was great: “An actual dialogue, perhaps.”

But while Mullin complained about the power of Standing Rock to slow down the Dakota Access Pipeline, he says he’s all for increased powers of tribes to develop such energy projects. The president should “provide tribes with the resources they need in order to best decide how their land should be developed,” he said. How. Not if.

Then perhaps that gets to the actual dialogue part. Or lack thereof.

Mullin supports the House health care bill that would wreck the Indian health system. Then Mullin does not see it that way. In a May Q & A published by the Miami News-Record he said flat out that Republican plans will not hurt the Indian Health Service. “The American Health Care Act (AHCA), which the House passed on May 4th to repeal and replace Obamacare, makes no changes to Indian Health Services (IHS). In addition, the spending bill passed to fund the government through September funds IHS at a rate of $5 billion – an increase of $232 million from last year’s levels. I anticipate the native people of Oklahoma will welcome both of these things.”

Excuse me. But as I’ve been reporting (often) Medicaid is a significant funding stream for Indian health. And the House bill (and its Senate twin) destroy that whole infrastructure.

He told his constituents that no one who has health care will lose it because of the Republican plans. He said emergency rooms cannot turn people away. Seriously. That’s a health care plan? Mullin told the Tulsa World: “We think the federal government is going to solve all of our problems, but let me ask you, how is (that) going?”

That explains a lot. Mullin was against the Violence Against Women Act (which will need to be reauthorized by Congress next year) including the provisions that recognize tribal judicial authority.

Back to politics. If there is a voter groundswell of Trump opposition — even in Oklahoma — then Mullin’s re-election race could become interesting. The right candidate could push him on the left while Coburn and other conservatives will question his integrity from the right.

But who will challenge him? I’d like to see a candidate from one of the tribes. Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District is 17 percent Native American and it’s 65 percent rural. That’s two constituent groups that will be deeply impacted by Republican health care plans. There is an issue to run on here. (Not to mention that Coburn, who once held this seat, will campaign against Mullin. And the Trump chaos.)

We’re a little more than a year away from the next election. So this is the time to sort out who’s running from Indian Country, who should be running, and to pass on those candidates who regularly vote against Indian Country. I’d add Mullin to that last list.

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

 

A seat at the table? Claudia Kauffman launches bid for Seattle Port Commission

 

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Sen. Claudia Kauffman speaking in Seattle. She is a candidate for Seattle’s Port Commission. (Photo via Facebook.)

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

It’s such a simple thing: Every citizen should have a voice at the table when decisions are made. It’s a powerful notion because no democracy can sustain itself unless all of its people, all of those who have a stake in the outcome, are included.

But that idea remains illusive. And never more important.

What does a seat at the table look like? It means more Native Americans win election to office as governors, members of Congress, U.S. Senators, mayors, county commissions, judges, members of state legislatures, and, yes, why not, even the White House. Indian Country deserves more of a voice, both in terms of fairness and as elected representation that’s based on our share of the population. Wait. That’s fairness, too. (Previous: Indian Country wins with more representation in the states.)

Then there are elected offices that we don’t think about, yet are important, and by definition, are that seat at the table.  Claudia Kauffman is running for such a job, Commissioner for the Port of Seattle. This is a $650 million a year public business that manages Seattle’s seaport, airport, and a portfolio of real estate. It has its own police and fire departments. Tribes and native people are impacted by port decisions ranging from  cleaning up rivers and salmon habitat to regulating oil drilling rigs that berth in Seattle on their way to Arctic waters.

Kauffman is Nez Perce. She is the first Native American woman who was elected to the Washington state Senate a decade ago.  (Previous: She Represents: A survey of Native American Women who have been elected to office.) She also works for the Muckleshoot Tribe as the Intergovernmental Affairs Director. One of her tasks in that role is distributing $1.3 million a year to more than 200 local schools, churches and not-for-profit organizations. She’s also been a trustee at The Evergreen State College and on the board of visitors at Antioch College.

Kauffman grew up in Seattle’s Beacon Hill as the youngest of seven children. “I come from a family with a long history of giving back to the community,” Kauffman says on her web site. “A family with strong and well grounded values and connection to our community, our environment, and our future. I will work to bring trust back into government, to provide leadership in the direction of the Port of Seattle, and bring family wage jobs.”

A couple of years ago Kauffman told the port commission that it could use her perspective as a working mother, a small business owner, and a community leader. “My record of public service includes working closely with state, federal and tribal governments, which I believe, makes my experience unique and beneficial to the Port of Seattle Commission,” she wrote. In the state Senate Kauffman said she worked on transportation, international trade and economic development. “I led the Senate in the successful passage of the MicroEnterprise Development in which we funded training for small business owners … my work with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe provides critical connections, understanding and perspective.”

In her campaign brochure, Kauffman said she will build on her tribal contacts and strengthen ties with the 29 tribes in the state. Tribes “are large employers,” Kauffman said. “In 2010, they paid $1.3 billion in wages and purchased $2.4 billion in goods and services.”

This will be a challenging race. She’s running for Commissioner Position One, against a well-funded incumbent, John W. Creighton III. Also on the August primary ballot will be Ryan Calkins and Bea Querido-Rico. (This is a non partisan election for voters of King County, Washington.)

Creighton is the longest serving port commissioner and one of the commission’s best fundraisers.

But Kauffman is no stranger to that world. She raised nearly $300,000 in her bid for the Senate and she was one of those candidates who worked incredibly hard knocking on every door at every opportunity. She also has a political organization — a network of people who are willing to work extraordinarily hard to win an election.

This is what a seat at the table looks like.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not voting in the era of Donald J. Trump

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Trahant Reports

One election will not erase what is Donald J. Trump. Most of his voters see him as the antidote to business as usual. He’s shaking thing up (even if there is disagreement on specific issues). Destroying health care? Yes. So what. At least something new will surface.

Montana voters, it would seem, have a lot more at stake than most. This is a state where Medicaid expansion is working well. That very idea will be repealed in the Republican plan. So this election is a big deal.

Except voting is soooo hard. Especially when it’s a special election and no one is running for president.

Some numbers: Denise Juneau lost that same congressional district in November earning 201,758 votes to Ryan Zinke’s 280,472.

On Thursday Greg Gianforte won with 50.2 percent of the vote and only 189,240. In November 74.44 percent of the electorate showed up. Thursday night it was 54.4 percent.

Glacier County is a case in point. This is where the Blackfeet Nation votes. Juneau won the county by more than two-to-one over Zinke. In November more than 5,000 people voted. Last night: About 2,400.

So Democrats may be soothed by the fact that Gianforte lost nearly 7 points from Zinke’s win in November. The idea being that Democrats are picking up strength in a pro-Trump state. Matthew Yglesias wrote as much for Vox. That geography determines so much of the Congress and that turns into a Republican advantage. But, “for prognostication purposes you don’t just want to know who wins or loses a special election — you want to know the margin,” he writes. “To win by only seven in Montana, a state that Trump won by 20 points, is a clear sign that seats Trump won by four or five points or more aren’t truly safe.”

True enough. But it really will depend on who shows up at the polls in 2018.
Yes this was a special election. Yes the rules were confusing (changed along the way) about where to vote and how.

But all of that is just is a call to do better. We need to figure out how to get more people engaged. (Again.)

To me the real loss in Montana is that in an era when so much is at stake, 321,000 voters passed.  They voted that voting is not all that important. — Mark Trahant

 

 

 

Trump Reality Show is unbelievable, but hides the real off-screen Medicaid attacks

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The best moment for the new Trump Administration was the one where the president smiled in Saudi Arabia and said only 26 words in public. This was terrible reality TV but we all watched knowing that it was likely just a pause. Something outrageous must be coming up next. Meanwhile, beyond the distraction, Republicans work to dismantle the most successful government health insurance for the poor, Medicaid. (White House photo)

 

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Reality TV works for one simple reason: The antics of the characters are beyond what’s believable in fiction. It’s compelling drama because normal people do not do such things. So part of watching is to find out when the story arc ends, to discover when the situation becomes “normal” again. (Even though the story does go on and on and on.)

That’s why the presidency of Donald J. Trump would make a terrible novel or screenplay: There’s no mechanism to suspend disbelief. Tell the story about a four-month term in the White House, a time marked by so much chaos, unprofessionalism, and distraction, and a reader (and especially an editor or producer) would shake their head and say, “Try again. This story is not believable.”

That’s why only the metaphor of reality TV works. America the unbelievable.

Last week the best moment of the new Trump Administration was the one where the president smiled in Saudi Arabia and said only 26 words. This was terrible reality TV but we all watched knowing that it was likely just a pause. Something outrageous must be coming up next.

The White House Reality Show is entertaining.

Meanwhile more important stories are still being written and played off-screen. That’s why our focus must return to the policy fights ahead: How this country (and our planet) deal with climate change, how we stop the rigging of elections, and, how we make certain the court system is fair. Next week the White House will formally send Congress its budget plan for the next year. We already know this plan will be nonsense. Another distraction. The real work of budgeting will occur in Congress and it will require votes from both Democrats and Republicans to make it so.

At a House hearing last week, for example, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) said he was disappointed in a White House recommendation to cut  $5.8 billion from next year’s funding for the National Institutes of Health. He such a draconian cut would stall so much progress from recent investments.

In other words: No sale. Across the Congress, across the government, this same notion is being repeated. Eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcast? No sale. Down the list the message is much the same, eliminate the Denali Commission? No sale. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Paying for health care

But while Congress might rewrite the budget in some areas, there are real dangers ahead. I’m obsessed with what this bunch is doing to the funding streams for health care, especially Medicaid.

This is what the Trump Show hides: The House’s American Health Care Act does much more than roll back the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare as they like to say.) It ends a Medicaid program that works. It’s the single most effective form of “government” insurance that secures health care options for 62.3 million Americans. To add a little perspective here: Medicare — supposedly untouchable in politics — insures 43.3 million seniors.

These are huge numbers.  Medicaid is expensive. And we all pay for this plan. As we should. It’s one of the best things this country does.

So it’s no wonder that Speaker Paul Ryan and Republicans are eager to make this go away (both because it costs so much and because it requires a lot of taxes to pay for this enterprise).

This is an issue where the philosophical divisions run deep. Every Republican wants to spend less federal money on this program. Significantly less. Once you do that, there will be fewer people who participate in this public insurance program. That’s math, not politics. The House plan (according to the Congressional Budget Office) strips $880 billion from Medicaid funding in order to reduce health care taxes on wealthy people by $883 billion. Tit for tat.

Watch this debate closely. Parse every word. The Republicans in the Senate who say they champion Medicaid often only talk about Medicaid expansion. And that’s followed by, there should be a transition to something else (namely, block grants that states cannot afford). What else? How does that work? And who pays?

At a town hall in Anchorage last week, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan followed this script to the letter. According to The Alaska Dispatch News the Republican senator told a contentious town hall, that he wanted to make sure the people who received health care coverage under Medicaid expansion “do not have the rug pulled out from under them.” Medicaid for now. Then something else. What else? How does that work? And who pays?

The answer is to protect the framework of Medicaid (and if we were smart, enhance and expand it). It’s the one part of Indian health funding that’s growing and already accounts for the insurance of record for more than half of all our children. (And, this is really important, third-party insurance billing, which includes Medicaid, is money that stays at a local IHS clinic or hospital. It does not go into the general budget.)

Medicaid is a partnership between the federal government and the states. So states set many of the rules, federal government then agrees or not, and pays only a portion of the bill. But patients within the Indian Health system are usually eligible for a 100 percent reimbursement.

So states set the rules for Indian Country — including limitations — yet don’t pay the cost. Already six states are already looking to tighten Medicaid rules. Arizona is keen on adding work requirements. Wisconsin wants drug testing (imagine the trap that sets for patients in opioid treatment programs). Maine wants to test assets beyond income. The goal of each new regulation is to shrink the number of people insured by Medicaid.

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Medicaid works, especially in Indian Country

I’ve heard Republicans say they like the results of Medicaid but that we as a country cannot afford it. That’s particularly troubling because Medicaid is more efficient that private insurance. (Even with its convoluted payments from the federal government to states and Indian health programs). How can that be? Julia Paradise, associate director of the Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured for the Kaiser Family Foundation, says Medicaid acts as a “high risk pool.” Because so many people are excluded (or out-priced) from private insurance Medicaid is the only option. “Among adult Medicaid enrollees who are not working, illness or disability is the main reason. By covering many of the poorest and sickest Americans, Medicaid effectively serves as a high-risk pool for the private health insurance market, taking out the highest-cost people, thereby helping to keep private insurance premiums more affordable.”

And, as Paradise notes in the recent report, “10 Things to Know about Medicaid: Setting the Facts Straight,” evidence continues to mount that Medicaid improves health outcomes. This is especially true when it comes to detecting and treating diabetes, mental health programs, and research has found that Medicaid expansions for adults were associated with significant reductions in mortality.

The Senate is now busy rewriting the House’s awful health bill. It will be a different entity, that’s for sure. But will the Senate protect (and if they are smart, enhance and expand) the best basic public health insurance program that we have now? There is no evidence to suggest that. And too many people are watching reality TV to even notice.

 

 

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