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Mark Trahant: Federal shutdown poses risk in Indian Country

Filed Under: Opinion | Politics
More on: aca, barack obama, bia, democrats, economy, employment, ihs, mark trahant, republicans

So Tuesday at midnight the federal government should post a sign that reads: “Closed for Business.” Unless, that is, Congress drops its idiocy and suddenly breaks into harmony. It’s possible, right? Oh. Sure. Then again, in an ideal world, any government closure would be quick and in a few days the world we know would return to normal.

But I don’t think so. This crisis is rooted in structure: The Constitution rewards Barack Obama, Senate Democrats and House Republicans all for winning elections (even when those wins reflected very different voters). Now there are many logical reasons why a compromise is all-but-impossible.

The president and Senate Democrats cannot give in because the Continuing Resolution enacted by the House is only a temporary solution, lasting until mid-December, while at the same time, this proposal permanently alters the Affordable Care Act.

And a major problem for House members is that the Republicans cannot come to an agreement on any budget that doesn’t address “ObamaCare.” On top of that they have a problem with budget numbers. Just a few months ago, Republicans were demanding regular order, a routine budget process. But that won’t work any longer. As Politico reports: The House budget adds in revenue from the Affordable Care Act, promises to protect Defense programs, and sticks with the sequestration caps under the Budget Control Act. “But to deliver on this pledge, it required such large cuts from domestic spending bills that the whole appropriations process collapsed by mid-summer.”

The only way this mess gets cleaned up is for the government to close and for ordinary citizens to be mad as hell and call their representatives and senators and demand a resolution. That will take some time. A shutdown that started on December 16 1995 lasted 21 days and cost more than $1.4 billion.

What’s the impact on Indian Country? First it’s going to be tough for every individual federal employee. Some will be asked to work, others told to stay home. But either way there won’t be a pay check until this is resolved. And there is no guarantee that federal employees who remained home will get paid later (although that has been the case in the past). Michael Trujillo, then director of the Indian Health Service, testified that in the 1996 shutdown, the lack of pay caused hardships for the IHS staff. It became difficult for IHS to buy medical care and even basic food deliveries. “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,” Trujillo said.

Another immediate impact is that payment for federal contracts, whether to contractors or to tribes and tribal organizations, will be put on hold. A September 17 memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget says: “Normally, routine, ongoing operational and administrative activities relating to contract or grant administration (including payment processing) cannot continue when there is a lapse in funding.”

This is going to be a real concern for a small business that has contracts with the government -- and expects to be paid on time.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs closed its doors in 1996, a furlough of some 13,500 employees, but the agency has said that will not happen this time around. Schools should continue to operate and any program with funds that are not appropriated. But many employees will still be sent home and checks for General Assistance and lease payments for oil and gas or agriculture could stack up unpaid.

This fight over the budget is big could slow the economy by as much as 1.4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product -- but even then this issue is not as important as the potential for a default on the national debt. (The government will run out of borrowing authority in mid-October.) A default would be worse for the economy because it’s never happened before. How bad? No one knows. But it could mean higher interest rates and upheaval in financial markets. All, of course, self-inflicted wounds.

There is one irony in the Congressional impasse. The one program that Republicans want to kill, the Affordable Care Act, does not rely on appropriations. So the state exchanges should open anyway on October 1st. At least if a citizen can get through a locked front government door.

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. Join the discussion about austerity. Comment on Facebook at:

More from Mark Trahant:
Mark Trahant: Playing games with Indian Country's funding (9/25)
Mark Trahant: Republicans are willing to destroy IHS system (9/19)
Mark Trahant: Clock ticking for Congress on debt and budget (9/12)

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