Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Trahant Reports

The flurry that is the Trump Administration continues to impact Indian Country in ways that are expected — as well as those that surprise. A nasty surprise at that.

The latest offering is a presidential signing statement that targets federal programs that serve American Indians, Alaska Natives, as well as those that fund historically black colleges. Because this statement is attached to the spending bill that just passed Congress, H.R. 244, it gives the Trump Administration legal cover to cancel grants and funding streams already in motion.

Here is the language from the White House:

My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender (e.g., Division B, under the heading “Minority Business Development”; Division C, sections 8016, 8021, 8038, and 8042; Division H, under the headings “Departmental Management Salaries and Expenses,” “School Improvement Programs,” and “Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account”; Division K, under the heading “Native American Housing Block Grants”; and Division K, section 213) in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.

In other words the Trump Administration doesn’t want to spend money on Native American housing block grants or on HBCUs. (And that makes me wonder, are tribal colleges next?) The spending bill included some $654 million for tribal housing programs.

Will the Trump Administration spend the money that’s appropriated?  That’s now a real question. The signing statement is a serious threat to appropriations for this year.

Presidential signing statements are extra-legal authority. No. That’s not right either. The American Bar Association said in 2006 that this process undermines the law. It’s an invention says a president knows more than Congress. Signing statements have been around since James Monroe. But, according to the American Presidency Project, Andrew Jackson was a fan. “In May 1830, Andrew Jackson wrote an message to the House stating his understanding of the limits of an appropriation:  “the phraseology of the section which appropriates the sum of $8,000 for the road from Detroit to Chicago may be construed to authorize the application of the appropriation for the continuance of the road beyond the limits of the Territory of Michigan, I desire to be understood as having approved this bill with the understanding that the road authorized by this section is not to be extended beyond the limits of the said Territory.”

The Trump White House is eager to destroy the federal government as it exists now. And this signing statement is a sneak attack. — Mark Trahant

 

 

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President Donald J. Trump and House Republicans celebrate their legislative win, the passage of the American Health Care Act. The bill now moves to the U.S. Senate where it will be considered and likely amended significantly. (White House photo via YouTube.)

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act by four votes, 217 to 213. The legislation now moves to the U.S. Senate. If this bill becomes law it will do five things: Cut taxes for people who make a lot of money, end health insurance subsidies and much of the coverage from Medicaid, cause more people to go uninsured and eventually bankrupt, and frame the most important political debate in a long time.

Every Republican who voted for this mean-spirited bill must now defend against every American who has any problem with insurance or health care. (I know that’s not fair. But it’s essentially what happened to the Democrats.) You get a doctor’s bill you don’t like: Blame Trump and Ryan. Lose insurance coverage at work: Ditto. This is why the optics are so lousy for Republicans, the health care system is now their mess. 

Oh. I know. This bill is not law yet. And it’s not likely to be. But it doesn’t matter. Months after the House voted its first repeal of the Affordable Care Act people reported that they thought the law was gone. It was not then. Nor now. 

Remember the House bill still must get through the Senate and that body is as divided as the House. But one difference is that there is a constituency in the Senate for Medicaid. (As I have been writing: This is the most significant impact on Indian Country. This bill doesn’t just repeal the Affordable Care Act, it ends Medicaid as we know it. Medicaid insures more than half of all children in the Indian Health system and it accounts for 13 percent of the Indian Health Service budget.)

At least four Republican Senators, Rob Portman (Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), Cory Gardner (Colorado), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have been clear about their support for Medicaid and Medicaid expansion. (Medicaid is a state, federal partnership to provide health care for families with low incomes. The Affordable Care Act expanded that to single people and lowered the income limits to 138 percent of federal poverty guidelines. The numbers are huge. Before the ACA about 56 million people were insured by Medicaid. Today the number is nearly 75 million.)

A bloc of four senators — if they don’t budge — has the power to say “no” to any legislation. This is the Medicaid Protection Block. And Republicans only have two votes to spare in the Senate because all of the Democrats will likely oppose this measure (as they did in the House). So the thing is that if the Senate language satisfies theMedicaid Protection Block that will enrage the Freedom Caucus in the House. That bloc stuck together and killed the House’s first version of the legislation, so the second version was even more to their liking (removing federal requirements to provide basic health services including pre-existing conditions).

Complicated, right? Add to that mix the conservative members of the Senate who don’t think this bill goes far enough in the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Paul Rand (Kentucky) said on Fox News: “It will take a little bit of work to get me to ‘yes’ vote on health care bill.” In other words make the bill more ideological, not something that will get support from the Medicaid Protection Bloc.

And if that’s not complicated enough, there are also Republicans in the Senate that object to the bill’s attack on Planned Parenthood because of the impact of such a policy on women’s health. That bloc includes Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins.

Complex or not, no matter what comes out of the Senate (unless it’s the House bill exactly) the House will have to vote again. Then the illogical Freedom Caucus gets another shot at defying their own party leadership.

But the real politics of Wednesday’s action is not in Congress. It’s playing out on social media and communities across the country. It’s the idea that this vote was a definition for the next election. One side believes that health care is not a right.  The other sees the Affordable Care Act as imperfect, but a step in the right direction.

Indian Country should be included in this debate. And we’re not. Our right to health care is simple, it’s based on treaties, history, and thus a pre-payment for whatever insurance mechanism the country comes up with. The Affordable Care Act at least opens up an avenue to fully fund the Indian Health system something that’s never been accomplished before.

This is also the ideal moment for Indian Country to have more of a say. This is when a political coalition can be built around idea that health care is a right. Health care is already defining the 2018 elections.

And the politics of that start in Red states (those that voted for President Donald J. Trump). This bill, in a quest for free market purity (if that’s even possible in health care), would benefit young people, healthy people, and people who live in cities. And paying for that experiment are older people, sicker people, and rural people.

Alaska is at the top of this list. The Affordable Care Act pays insurance companies to help keep costs down. The Republican plan ends that business.  The result: “Consumers in 11 states would see tax credits fall by more than $3,000 on average, or more than 50 percent, and consumers in seven states would lose an average of more than $4,000. In Alaska, by far the highest-premium state, the average reduction in tax credits would be $10,200, or 78 percent,” according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

And that doesn’t even include Medicaid. Another study on that issue found the program saved Alaska significant dollars, projecting a billion dollar return after a decade. The state’s Commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, Valerie Davidson, told KTUU News that “with our $3.5 billion budget deficit, we don’t have an additional one billion dollars more to pay for services that we currently have, we just can’t afford it.”

She also said the House bill would strip behavioral health funding when it’s so important in the middle of an opioid epidemic.

So for an Alaska representative, one that works for constituents, this should have been a no-brainer. This bill is terrible for Alaska. Last week Rep. Don Young said as much. He claimed victory when the previous bill was pulled from consideration without a vote. He told The Alaska Dispatch News: “My job is to represent those people in that state, and I think we did this this week. I work with (House Speaker Paul Ryan), don’t get me wrong — the speaker talked to me quite a bit. But it didn’t come to a point where I could support this bill. He needed my vote.”

The bill that passed Wednesday is not significantly different. Alaska is still hosed. And Don Young voted “yes.” Now he says, don’t worry, this bill will not become law. The Senate will change it.

That’s basically the position of Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican in leadership, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. He told National Public Radio: “This thing is going to go to the United States Senate. It’s going to change, in my view, in the United States Senate in some way. Then we have to have a Congress — a conference to work out the differences. If we can do that, then it has to still pass the House and the Senate again before it ever gets to the president. So, you know, at some point, you just have to move. And we think this is it and that this will create some momentum. Again, I’m interested to see what our friends in the Senate will do in response.”

Cole is a champion for Indian health programs, especially when it comes to the budget. He’s often the critical voice and the only Native American at the table when budgets are written. However he dismisses Medicaid Expansion quickly because Oklahoma is one of the states that’s passed. Ok. We disagree. Understandable.

But this House measure is not just about Medicaid Expansion; it’s a radical restructuring of Medicaid and capping costs. Even in Oklahoma Medicaid serves more than 800,000 people. And, remember that Medicaid is 13 percent of the IHS budget, more than $800 million now and growing.  Already more than half of our children are insured this way. Plus this is the best kind of money because it’s used by local clinics and hospitals.

This is what Tom Cole, Don Young, and 215 other Republicans voted to take away from Indian Country. This is what’s on the ballot next year.

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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Trahant Reports

How much does it cost to buy the vote of a ‘moderate’ Republican? Today the going rate is $8 billion. (And that, by the way, is more than ten times amount of money the Indian health system is at risk of losing if Congress enacts the “American Health Care Act.”)
The $8 billion would fund a high-risk pool for individuals with pre-existing conditions. The idea surfaced Wednesday as an amendment from so-called moderate Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Billy Long of Missouri after a meeting with President Donald J. Trump. This pool of funds is supposed to make it easier to take away a requirement in the current law to cover pre-existing conditions. Upton is quoted by The Hill newspaper saying, “I think it is likely now to pass the House.”
Here’s the thing. An $8 billion pool won’t come anywhere close to meeting the need.
Just think about this: Chronic care, including diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, consume nearly nine-out-of-ten health care dollars (which totaled $2.9 trillion in 2013). Add to that cancer and other costly diseases and it’c clear that $8 billion is not even a down payment.

But as I have been reporting: “The bill would still wipe out Medicaid as we know it. Medicaid represents 13 percent of the Indian Health Service budget (or $808 million).” Indian Country’s biggest concern right now ought to be Medicaid, Medicaid and Medicaid. There are now 30 million children covered by Medicaid; more than half of all Native children.
The last version of the bill sticks with its revision of Medicaid by capping the costs.
The crazy part of this equation is “why?” The Senate is not going to pass this bill. Several Republican Senators, including Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, have said they support Medicaid as a state decision. This bill will, however, put House Republicans on the record. Alaska’s Rep. Don Young has been listed throughout this process as an undecided or a “lean no.” No other state will lose as much in this legislation as Alaska. So the choice will be a vote for the party or one for constituents.

The revised bill is expected to move to the House floor as soon as today. This legislation is moving so fast that few will have a chance to review it. And the Congressional Budget Office will not be able to look at the bill’s impact on either the budget or on American’s access to insurance. — Mark Trahant

 

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Debra Haaland has filed paperwork to run for Congress from New Mexico as a Democrat. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and, if elected, would be the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress. (Campaign photo via Twitter)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Debra Haaland filed paperwork to run for Congress from New Mexico. If elected, she would be the first Native American woman to ever serve in that body. And what makes this news especially cool: This is a winnable seat.

Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, has served the past two years as the state’s Democratic Party chair (where she successfully retired the party’s debts). She has also been a candidate for lieutenant governor and chaired the Laguna Development Corporation and has been a tribal administrator. Her Twitter profile says: “A proud UNM Lobo mom; Pueblo woman; Marathon runner; Gourmet cook.” She also tweeted: “Thank you for the outpouring of support! Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks … and is using the hashtag, #Deb4Congress and her web site is found at debforcongress.com.

“I’ve spent my life advocating for the underrepresented, advancing progressive values, and working tirelessly to help elect Democrats up and down the ballot,” Haaland said in a statement. “I want to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, and it would be an honor to be that voice for our communities, our families, and for all of us.”

New Mexico’s First Congressional District includes Albuquerque and the north-central portion of the state. It’s currently represented by Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, who won with 65 percent of the vote and is now running for governor. The seat is rated “solid” or “safe” for the Democrats by several political reports.

Since this will be an “open” seat there will be a lot of competition. So the test for Haaland will be a primary election in June of next year. That means she will need early campaign money. Rep. Grisham raised $1.8 million for her re-election in 2016, however, the last time a Republican held this seat, former Rep. Heather Wilson, she raised and spent nearly $5 million.

As a former party chair, Haaland should be well-suited to take on the fundraising challenges. She has basically been raising money — albeit for others — for the past two years. She was the first Native American woman to serve as the party chair.

Some history: I looked up the numbers this morning and since 1789 there have been more than 10,000 people elected to Congress. There have been a handful of Native American men, but never a woman. By my count, at least eight Native women have formally made a bid for Congress: Jeanne Givens (Idaho), Ada Deer (Wisconsin), Kalyn Free (Oklahoma), Diane Benson (Alaska), Mary Kim Titla (Arizona, Rep. Wenona Benally (Arizona), Victoria Steele (Arizona) and Denise Juneau (Montana). Perhaps number nine has the winning ticket. (Previous: She Represents: A survey of Native American women who have been elected.)

Then this election cycle is still early. There’s no reason why there won’t be several more Native American women, and men, running as a challenge to the Trump White House.

 

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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The White House priorities such as the border wall or the defunding of arts and public broadcasting are missing from this year’s spending plan. (Trahant file photo)

Trahant Reports

Congress has a spending plan. And it rejects most (but not all) of President Donald J. Trump’s priorities. It also includes more money for most federal Indian programs.

But remember: This is a short budget. It’s only enough money to fund government operations through the end of September.

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said: “This package of the remaining Appropriations bills is the result of over a year’s worth of careful and dedicated efforts to closely examine federal programs to make the best possible use of every tax dollar. This legislation will fund critical federal government activities, including our national defense, and enact responsible funding decisions to target U.S. investments where they are needed the most. It also maintains and enhances policies that bolster economic growth and support the core values that our nation is built upon.”

About a week ago I wrote that the best option for Congress was for “the White House to work with Democrats and spend money on their priorities. It’s the basic formula that has led to enactments of budgets for the past 8 years. The bargain would mean continued spending for domestic programs as well as add money to the military. The wall? No. Cutting support for Planned Parenthood? Get serious. And health care funding? That’s why it’s called the art of the deal.”

That’s essentially what happened. But it wasn’t the White House. It was Republican leaders in Congress that did the deal.  The military budget increased $25 billion over current levels. There was also an additional $1.5 billion for border security.

Both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service will get a slight boost from this budget.

From the House Appropriations Committee:

American Indian and Alaska Native Programs – The Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Education are funded at $2.9 billion – an increase of $69 million above fiscal year 2016. This includes necessary increases for schools, law enforcement, road maintenance, and economic development.

The Indian Health Service is funded at $5.0 billion – an increase of $232 million above the fiscal year 2016 enacted level. This includes operating costs for staffing at new facilities, and increases for rising contract support costs, medical inflation, and a growing and aging population.

But the Environmental Protection Agency takes a hit. “The bill funds the EPA at $8.06 billion, a reduction of $81.4 million below the fiscal year 2016 enacted level and $209 million below President Obama’s budget request,” the Committee said. “Within this total, the EPA’s research and regulatory programs are reduced by $52 million below the current level and over $300 million below the previous administration’s request.”

However the bill will add $75 million to speed up Superfund cleanup projects.

The fight over the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities is saved for another day too, the bill includes $150 million for each of the endowments, $2 million above the fiscal year 2016 level. A similar story for the Corporation for Public Broadcast. The bill includes an advance appropriation of $445 million for CPB for fiscal year 2019, which is the same level of advance funding provided in the fiscal year 2016 enacted level and the previous Administration’s budget request.

Another White House budget item for next year — cutting funding for the Violence Against Women Act — is also a no go in this budget. The House committee says “funds are increased within the highest-priority grant programs, including $481.5 million for the Violence Against Women programs and $403 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants.”

Congress must still vote on the spending bill. But the prospects are strong because Democrats are on board so it only takes a handful of Republicans to make it law.

More on the budget here. — Mark Trahant

 

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Trahant Reports

Speaker Paul Ryan said House Republicans are close to a deal that would allow them to pass the American Health Care Act. He says this is because of “improvements” suggested by President Donald J. Trump.

Let’s be clear about these so-called improvements: The bill would still wipe out Medicaid as we know it. Medicaid represents 13 percent of the Indian Health Service budget (or $808 million). Now. It could produce even more revenue as more states opt into the plan and more American Indians and Alaska Natives sign up for that public insurance program. This is how the Indian health system reaches full-funding one day.

(Previous: Three ways to add money to Indian health.)

Ryan tweeted that the idea behind the new bill is “to give the states the ability to kind of customize the reforms to maximize the ability to lower premiums.” And the method for that is to allow states to walk away from requiring essential services. The result would be people who have insurance policies that do not cover what would be covered under the Affordable Care Act. This weakens the idea of protecting people from insurance companies that use pre-existing conditions to limit or exclude coverage.

That’s the debate that is taking center state right now. But for Indian Country the bigger concern ought to be Medicaid, Medicaid and Medicaid.

There are now 30 million children covered by Medicaid; more than half of all Native children,

I wrote last month that two states show the impact: Alaska and Montana. Both are new to Medicaid expansion. Montana currently does not have representation in Congress — so there is no voice in this “reform.” Alaska’s Rep. Don Young, a Republican, is so far listed as an undecided for this new House proposal. I also wrote that the previous House bill was particularly bad for Alaska. That’s still true but now those voting for the measure have a way to spin it: They can say it will lower premiums. Sure. And that will be fine as long as you never need the policy to actually pay for expensive medical treatment.

A House vote could come as soon as Friday. — Mark Trahant

 

 

 

 

 

 

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James Singer will announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate on May 2. (Campaign photo)

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

James Singer will run for the United States Senate in Utah. He’s the first Native American to run in 2018 elections. Singer is a member of the Navajo Nation. He’s also the first candidate to cite Standing Rock as the answer to the question, “why run?”

“This past year has marked an awakening for Indigenous Peoples,” Singer said on his web site, Singer for Senate.  “At the center has been the struggle at Standing Rock, North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I was moved to action as I saw my Native sisters and brothers stand against an encroachment which threatened not only their inherent sovereignty, but also their humanity. These water protectors were pummeled with rubber bullets, sprayed with powerful water cannons in freezing temperatures, attacked with dogs, and shot with pepper spray, while bulldozers cleared away sacred land and burial sites so that a pipeline could be pushed through. The love of money by a small, but powerful few, is sickening to the rest of Americans, regardless of political affiliation.”

Singer has already filed his paperwork, but the official announcement will be made at the Glendale Public Library in Salt Lake City on May 2. Singer is from Kearns, Utah, and currently resides in Salt Lake City. He teaches sociology at Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College and is currently in the sociology doctoral program at Utah State University. More about his background here.

According to his web site: “The Singer for Senate campaign stands alone as not only a representation of Native voices in Utah, where James is the first Diné (Navajo) candidate in the state, but also a departure from the grip of establishment politics as a social democrat.”

This is an interesting idea because it raises questions about the next generation and the rise of a new kind of politics. Imagine: Running for office in Utah on the issues of Standing Rock, and therefore climate change, the excesses of capitalism, gender inequality, and “a vision to live more sustainably.”

And 2018 will not be an ordinary election. Even in Utah. Sen. Orrin Hatch has already raised $1.3 million for his re-election effort but he may not run. Hatch is 83 years old. There have been several other Republicans who are considering campaigns, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It’s also possible that Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who ran for president as an independent, could run again as a conservative independent.

It’s way too early to say this, but what the heck, a three-way race would be the ideal outcome for Singer because it could split the conservative votes (Utah is one of the reddest states in the country) and open up a path for a different kind of politician.

It’s also true that Utah’s demographics are changing. Recent census data show that nearly four out of every 10 new Utah residents are from a racial or ethnic group. And Salt Lake County, the base of Singer’s candidacy, is 27.4 percent minority (accounting for nearly half of the state’s diversity). Another urban county, Weber, is 22.9 percent minority. (One rural county, San Juan, is 53.4 percent Navajo.)

But to win a Senate seat a candidate must create a much broader coalition. “I have lived in Utah nearly my entire life,” Singer says. “I know our values: We work hard. We want safe communities and to have enough to provide for our families, whatever they look like. We want people to be treated fairly and justly. We want to be able to better our lives. Our hearts ache to see suffering. We have a spirit of service and giving that is unmatched. We want to help those in need and share when we are prospering. There are so many things that we share in common.”

The Singer campaign is asking for small donations of $27 to fund their campaign. (Six years ago Hatch spent nearly $12 million for his re-election. Hatch has been in office since 1977.)

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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The new health care team: President Donald J. Trump (clockwise from left) Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Secretary Tom Price, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Vice President Mike Pence in an Oval Office meeting last month. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

 

Brace for another government shutdown

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Can President Donald J. Trump and the Republicans actually govern? As we near the 100th day mark the answer has been a loud “no.” So far. This week the Congress and the president will once again try for wins to fund the government, repeal the Affordable Care Act, extra money for Defense, and to construct a wall on the southern border. A nearly impossible order.

The House of Representatives does not have a governing coalition. There remains, essentially, three parties: Republicans, Democrats, and the Freedom Caucus. Two of these three groups must work together in order to pass any legislation. And to complicate the politics even more, many of the Republican members are already worried about their own re-election, so they might not support their own party’s leaders. Especially if that deal is sanctioned by the Freedom Caucus.

Yet Speaker Paul Ryan told his caucus Saturday that funding the government is the priority. The president was equally optimistic. “I think we’re in good shape,” President Trump said.

There are two budgets at issue. First there is the one proposed by the White House, “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” That budget would not begin until October and would result in a dramatic restructuring of the federal government. Many members of Congress have said there is no chance this budget will be enacted as proposed.

But this week there is another budget problem. Congress must pass budget extension for this year by April 29 or there will be another government shutdown.

Shutting the government has become too common: On Indigenous People’s Day in 1990 (Ok, back then it was called, Columbus Day) President Bush sent workers home after Congress failed to enact a spending bill. Then during the Clinton years there was a five-day closure in 1995 and another three-week shutdown in 1996. There was a 16-day shutdown in 2013, followed by the double-whammy of sequestration. Tribal governments were impacted almost immediately and had to suspend nutrition programs, foster care, law enforcement, schools and health care. Some tribes had to temporarily layoff workers.

A policy report by the National Congress of American Indians put this in perspective: “For many tribes, a majority of tribal governmental services is financed by federal sources. Tribes lack the tax base and lack parity in tax authority to raise revenue to deliver services. If federal funding is reduced sharply for state and local governments, they may choose between increasing their own taxes and spending for basic services or allowing their services and programs to take the financial hit. On the other hand, many tribes have limited ability to raise substantial new revenue, especially not rapidly enough to cover the reduction in services from the across the board reductions of the FY 2013 sequestration.”

That could be the good old days. The prospect of a serious meltdown is a far greater possibility in 2017 than it was four years ago.

First of all the White House is incompetent. Instead of laying out a plan that will lead to a working majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate it has offered nonsense. “I think we’ve made it very clear that we want border wall funding, we want greater latitude to deny federal grants to sanctuary cities,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week. “We want hiring of immigration agents, and we want $30 billion to infuse the military budget. Those are our priorities.”

That adds up to a blank check for the wall and immigration control, at least $30 billion for Defense, and a cut of at least $18 billion to domestic spending.

Those priorities are not possible without at least a few Democratic votes in the Senate (unless the rules are changed) because it takes 60 votes to approve any new Continuing Resolution. There are only 52 Republicans. So which Democrats are going to favor punishing sanctuary cities? How about none. And that’s only point one. Leaders in the House will need nearly every Republican to vote yes as well, something that’s always unlikely.

(Building a coalition with Democrats is even more important when you consider that Congress must soon raise the national debt limit, something that many Republicans always oppose without conditions that are unacceptable to Democrats.)

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But this week what makes a government shutdown even more likely is that the White House, Republicans, and Democrats, are all staking out claims on a variety of issues.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said he would not vote for another budget extension unless it increases military funding. In the past, Democrats have gone along with that notion as long as there is a mechanism to protect domestic programs budget cuts, including those that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

But the Trump administration (here is that competence thing) is already acting if its stingy budget is the law, telling agencies to shrink and reduce the number of federal employees.

An April 12 memo from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney says: “The president’s FY 2018 Budget request to Congress will propose decreasing or eliminating funding for many programs across the federal government, and in some cases redefining agency missions. The president’s FY 2018 Budget should drive agencies’ planning for workforce reductions and inform their Agency Reform Plans, consistent with final 2017 appropriations and current applicable legal requirements. OMB and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will work with agencies to facilitate reductions in the size of their workforce and monitor progress.”

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Congress is unlikely to go along with President Trump’s budget plan. Unlikely is too strong a word. How about? There is absolutely no way to get 216 votes for such a radical restructuring of the entire federal government. But programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives could be hit hard if there is another government shutdown.  (Trahant photo)

Yet there is no way Congress will agree with the restructuring of the federal government as proposed. The votes are not there. But the OMB is basically moving forward anyway, directing agencies to “begin implementing some reforms immediately while others will require congressional action.”

The White House message is stick it in your eye, Congress. (Oh, by the way, we still need your votes.)

So how does the White House move the ball forward? By threatening Democrats over the Affordable Care Act by proposing an exchange one dollar of funding for health care for every dollar spent on the wall. That took Democrats a few seconds to well, uh, no.

And coming next week the president said on Twitter that he will announce “big tax reform and tax reduction.”

That will subtract a few more votes for everything else that needs to happen this week.

Of course there is a way of out of this mess. The White House could work with Democrats and spend money on their priorities. It’s the basic formula that has led to enactments of budgets for the past 8 years. The bargain would mean continued spending for domestic programs as well as add money to the military. The wall? No. Cutting support for Planned Parenthood? Get serious. And health care funding? That’s why it’s called the art of the deal.

There are three doors on the governing stage. Door number one: An impasse and a government shutdown. Door number two: A deal with Democrats. And door number three: A short-term budget extension so the debate can go on. And on. And on.

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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A singing lawmaker: Rob Quist is the Democratic candidate in Montana’s special election next month. Special elections will soon set the tone for the 2018 campaign season.(Campaign photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Remember this: There is always another election.  And the 2018 congressional elections already promise to be extraordinary.

Let’s look at the landscape so far. Last week voters in Kansas surprised Republicans by barely winning a district that’s supposed to be safe. President Donald J. Trump tweeted: “Great win in Kansas last night for Ron Estes, easily winning the Congressional race against the Dems, who spent heavily & predicted victory!” And, indeed, there was a late surge that had many Democrats thinking victory. But Kansas is a deep red state. The district was represented by Mike Pompeo, who’s now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who won by a margin of 30 points. Trump’s margin in the same district was 27 points. And Tuesday? Estes won the district by less than seven percentage points.

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The Washington Post points out that special elections are complicated. There are a lot of factors at work beyond voters view of the White House. “But a sharp shift to the left in even deep-red parts of the country has obvious implications for the GOP that this experiment simply lays bare: the potential for an electoral disaster,” the Post said.

The shift from a House managed by Paul Ryan to one led by Nancy Pelosi would have huge implications for the Trump administration — and certainly for federal-tribal relations and programs.

Was Kansas the beginning of something bigger? Look for more answers to emerge in Georgia this week and Montana in May.

Tuesday voters in suburban Atlanta will weigh in. That special election to replace Tom Price (the Health and Human Services Secretary) is a “blanket primary” meaning that all candidates run on the same ballot regardless of party. Then the top two positions — unless one wins 50 percent vote — will face each other again. A number of Republicans are splitting the conservative vote. The Democrat in the race is Jon Ossoff and he has been leading in polls from the low- to mid-40s. Enough to win this round, but not enough to win the seat. Yet. Or maybe.

At this point you can boil this race down to one question: Who will show up? If more Democrats than normal show up (by about nine points) they could win this seat on Tuesday. That’s still possible in June but more difficult in a one-on-one race.

Indian Country’s first judgement of the Trump administration comes in Montana on May 25. Montana voters will pick a replacement for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke defeated Denise Juneau to win re-election. Now the race is between a singing cowboy, Rob Quist, and a wealthy entrepreneur, Greg Gianforte, who lost the November race for governor.

But that’s only the headline race. What makes the Montana special election more interesting is that the Libertarian Party is also on the ballot, Mark Wicks, a rancher and writer from Inverness. At the same time: Other party candidates, including the Green Party and independents, did not get signatures to make the ballot.

So this will be a three-way race. Libertarians are more popular in Montana than any  other state. (Indeed: I think one of the challenges for Juneau’s historic bid for Congress was that the Libertarians did not engage in a serious campaign. In the 2012 Senate race, Libertarian Mike Cox picked up nearly 7 percent of the vote in the race between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Denny Rehberg.)

One important issue for Indian Country has yet to be resolved: The election process itself. Many county clerks and voting advocates have argued the special election is the ideal test for a vote-by-mail election (saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars). However many in the Legislature argued that would give Democrats an advantage. The bill was killed. But Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock used an “amendatory veto” to revive the legislation. The Montana Legislature has not yet taken up that legislation even as county clerks move forward without a plan for a general mail ballot. I would love to see a major experiment with mail balloting for tribal communities. There is good data from Washington and Oregon that shows how effective mail ballots can be as a way to increase voter participation.

Back to the big picture. How would the Trump administration change in a world where Democrats control Congress? We actually might see a hint of that soon. The federal government must pass a new spending bill by the end of this month and it will likely be a coalition of Democrats working with Republicans to pass the measure. That means there will be funding for the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, and other programs supported by Democrats. The Republican Congress has the same problem on a spending bill as it did in the health care debate; there are not enough votes to pass a conservative alternative.

And in the House Democrats are well-positioned by history. Remember the president’s party nearly always loses seats in the first election after winning the White House. In 2010 after Barack Obama’s historic election, his party lost 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. And according to Gallup polling, since 1946, when presidents are above 50 percent approval, their party loses an average of 14 House seats compared with an average loss of 36 seats when presidents are below that mark. And President Trump remains far below that mark.

In 2016 there was a remarkable group of Native Americans running for the Congress. For that to happen again, in this next cycle, there needs to be a recruitment of candidates.

In Arizona, for example, Victoria Steele would be well-suited to run again against Rep. Martha McSally. McSally would have to defend Trump’s unpopularity in a swing district.

It would be interesting to see a strong Alaska Native candidate surface in Alaska against Rep. Don Young. Young was lucky that the health care bill failed when it did because he did not need to take a vote. He would have had to choose between his party and his state (Medicaid expansion works in Alaska and the House bill would have cost Alaskans more per person than any other state). He still may have to make that choice.

Ideally I would like to see younger candidates from Indian Country. Young people who could build innovative, digital campaigns instead of relying on what’s been done in the past in terms of fundraising and advertising.

This is why the special elections right are so important. Because win or lose in Kansas, Georgia, and Montana, it shows that the House is not cemented to Republican leadership. The 2018 election cycle will be very different than the one that moved Trump into the White House. And all it takes is for a few potential candidates to see the possible … and to think, “I can do that.”

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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No coal here. The Native Village of Tyonek, Alaska, celebrated the suspension of a project by PacRim Coal. The tribal community is located some 45 miles west of Anchorage. PacRim estimated the project would have mined some 242 million tons of coal. (Trahant file photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill near the village of Tyonek, Alaska. The company promised jobs. And, for a time, for a couple of decades, there were those jobs. But after the resource was consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.

This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). And in the worst case scenario, a Superfund site was left behind requiring government supervision and an even greater restoration effort.

But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal.

There would be construction jobs to build the mine, pipeline, or processing plant. Then there would be truck driving jobs moving materials. A few executive jobs (especially in public and community relations) and, of course, the eventual supervision of the cleanup (especially if the tribal government had its own environmental protection agency.)

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind … while the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.

The renewed effort to build the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic example of this shift. When President Donald J. Trump signed the executive order to approve the project he promised “thousands of jobs.” That’s true enough for the construction phase, but only 35 employees would be needed to operate the pipeline, according to the State Department report.

Keystone, at least, is prospective jobs. New ones. But the bigger challenge for the Navajo Nation, the Crow Nation and some thirty tribes with coal reserves or power plants is that new deal for resource-based plants and extraction does not create as many jobs.

The numbers are stark.

The U.S. Energy and Employment Outlook 2017 shows that electricity from coal declined 53 percent between 2006 and 2016. Over that same period, electricity from natural gas increased by 33 percent and from solar by 5,000 percent.

Coal is still a major source of energy. But it’s in decline. Coal and natural now gas add up to two-thirds of all electricity generation in the U.S. And that’s expected to remain so until at least 2040 when the market share declines to a little more than half.

But because it’s a market that’s going down it means that tribes that develop coal will not share in the rewards of either major profits or in a spike in jobs.

The only hope for this shrinking industry is to export the coal to other countries (something that will be extremely difficult because so many other nations have already agreed to the Paris climate targets). As Clark Williams-Derry has reported for the Sightline Institute:

“Robust, sustainable Asian coal markets were never a realistic hope for US coal exporters: the transportation costs were too high, the competition too fierce, and the demand too unstable. So the coal industry’s PR flacks may continue to spin tales about endless riches in the Asian coal market, the financials are telling a much more sobering story: that the coal export pipe dream continues to fade away, leaving a bad hangover on the coal industry’s balance sheets and a lingering bad taste in the mouths of coal investors and executives alike.”

On top of all that, Derry-Williams points out that China’s coal consumption has fallen for three consecutive years.

And the international context is that coal is the most polluting of the three types of fossil fuels. More than 80 percent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet global warming targets.

There are jobs in the energy field, but, as the Department of Energy report puts it: “Employment in electric power generation now totals 860,869 … (and) the number of jobs is projected to grow by another 7 percent but the majority will be in construction to build and install new renewable energy capacity.”

graph of U.S. net electricity generation and coal production, as explained in the article text

The green economy is taking over. (Trump or no Trump.)

The extractive economy (much like the farm economy a generation ago) reached its peak, probably back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 people. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extraction related jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that number is about 53,000.

Then Indian Country’s development of coal (or not) has been the story so far in the Trump era.

Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a memorandum lifting restrictions on federal coal leasing. He said the “war on coal is over.” Then he quoted Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying, “there are no jobs like coal jobs.”

A day later the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. The tribe said the Interior Department did not consult it prior to lifting the restrictions. “It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our Reservation and our residents,” Northern Cheyenne Tribe president L. Jace Killsback said in a news release. There are 426 million tons of coal located near the Northern Cheyenne and on the Crow Nation.

Meanwhile in Alaska, another coal project was put to rest in a tribal community. The village of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project. (Previously: Mother of the Earth returns to Tyonek) After a decade of planning, PacRim Coal suspended the project last month because an investor backed out.  The project could be brought back to life. But that’s not likely. Because coal is a losing bet for any investor.

According to Alaska Public Media that meant a joyful celebration in Tyonek.  The president of the village Native Council, Arthur Stanifer said, “What it means for us is our fish will continue to be here for future generations, also our wildlife, like the bears and the moose and the other animals will be secure and they’ll be here. They’ll have a safe place to be.”

And what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extraction-related jobs are about to be hit by even more disruptive forces. For example in the oil fields of North Dakota one of the great paying jobs is truck driving. Moving material back and forth. But already in Europe companies are experimenting and will soon begin the shift to self-driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before that trend takes over because it fits the model of efficient capitalism. Self-driving trucks don’t need rest breaks, consume less fuel, and fewer accidents. That same disruption of automation is occurring across the employment spectrum. Jobs that can be done by machines, will be.

So if jobs are no longer part of the equation, does natural resource extraction benefit tribal communities?

The answer ought to include a plan where the United States government and tribes work together to replace these jobs: Retrain workers and invest in the energy sector that’s growing, renewable fuels. But that’s not likely to happen in Trump Era.

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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