While Congress plays its game of chicken on the edge of the fiscal cliff, the harmful impact of sequestration cuts isn’t even on the table for discussion, says Mark Trahant.
Watch out for fights coming from the Capitol. The Senate versus the House. Republicans opposed to Democrats. And, of course, the most intense battle, Republicans against Republicans.
I grew up with the “Spy vs. Spy” comics from “Mad” magazine. Week after week a white-clad spy would deliver some sort of lethal device (think exploding toilets) to a black-suited spy. The scenarios were always outlandish, and neither character ever really won. It’s that way in D.C. now, except most of spies in combat are wearing Republican Red.
The spy-vs.-spy battle is alive and well on Twitter where there’s a #dontblink campaign to convince those “squishes” (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’ label for Republicans who lack conservative backbone) to support the filibuster. It’s not going to happen, but it does increase the possibility of a government shutdown simply because Congress is running out of time to meet the October 1 deadline. (The Senate has rules about how much time is allowed for discussion after members vote to end debate.) That means any vote for a temporary budget to fund the government cannot occur until the end of the week, Friday or Saturday. Then it will go back to the House. Perhaps with changes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will send a “clean” resolution to the House, hoping that body will pass it without changes just to keep the doors open. But they probably won’t. Then the process will start again — with the government officially closed. (On Tuesday, Senator Reid announced the measure will only fund the government until Nov. 15, leaving open the possibility of a regular-order budget.)
This is as goofy as “Spy vs. Spy.” And just like the comic strip, there’s no real winner in sight. The games just go on and on.
There is a bigger problem for Indian Country, however. Actually two issues. First, any “resolution” of this crisis is temporary. The same debate will surface again over the debt limit in a couple of weeks and then again when this continuing resolution expires. The House bill only pays for government operations until December 15. So, even if the Senate’s shorter version passes, the whole mess will repeat.
The second issue is that neither the House nor the Senate is ready to remove the sequester from the spending bill. That means that the budget will continue to shrink for the federal government — and tribes, schools, clinics, any agency that relies on appropriations.
Ideally the House would have sent over its budget bill — and then the Senate would have added dollars to key programs, such as those that benefit Indian Country, and negotiations would have begun. But the focus on the Affordable Care Act has made time the enemy. To avoid a shutdown, the Senate’s leadership is trying to send back to the House a bill that might quickly pass.
The sequester has reduced federal spending for domestic programs by 17.8% compared to 2010 levels (including adjustments for inflation), according to a report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. That means the sequestration cuts in 2014 will total $109 billion, evenly split between Defense Department and non-defense programs. “Congress should not ignore the significant funding gaps in critical public services on the non-defense side of the discretionary budget,” say the report’s authors, Joel Friedman, Richard Kogan and Sharon Parrott. “Congress should replace sequestration with a sound package of balanced deficit-reduction measures that take effect as the economy strengthens.”
But debate is not even occurring; the entire conversation is about the Affordable Care Act and what it will take for Congress to keep the doors open.
This past spring, the National Congress of American Indians said the U.S. Congress should find a way to hold Indian Country harmless from this round of budget cuts. “The sequester cuts pose particular hardship for Indian Country and the surrounding communities who rely on tribes as employers, where the recession struck especially hard,” said the report, A Call to Honor the Promises To Tribal Nations in the Federal Budget. “Tribal leaders urge Congress to protect the federal funding that fulfills the trust responsibility to tribes in the face of difficult choices.”
The list of programs affected by the sequester are in every corner of Indian Country, on reservations, in Alaska villages and in urban centers. It ranges from health-care delivery to education at all levels, representing a basic federal investment in the future (and in fulfilling solemn promises).
But the sequester isn’t even being debated. Congress is too busy playing “Spy vs. Spy.”
Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. You may join the discussion about austerity on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity.