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Mark Trahant: Indian Country needs solution beyond shutdown

Filed Under: Opinion | Politics
More on: 113th, barack obama, democrats, house, mark trahant, ncai, republicans, senate, sequestration, shutdown

YouTube: President Obama Delivers a Statement and Answers Questions from the Press

How does this chaos end? A five-word question that is simple and complex. Some answers are easy: Re-open the government, pay the bills already incurred by the United States of America, and move on.

But it's that last clause -- move on -- that is the most complex idea of all. How does a country move on when there is such a division, a deep discord rooted both in ideology and tone? How does Congress move on when it cannot even debate the larger questions? How can there be a resolution that lasts beyond one more fix that only lasts a few weeks?

This is a tough spot for Indian Country. Tribal leaders are hardly part of the conversation, yet tribal citizens feel the direct impact from the political insolvency. So how does this end? That is a particular concern because a legitimate fix ought to do something about the sequester, not just the government shutdown.

I’ll say it again: Ending the government shutdown is not a solution for Indian Country. The temporary spending bills, the Continuing Resolution, from both the House and Senate lock in budget lines that are unacceptable.

Just a few days ago, the National Congress of American Indians released a statement that put this in perspective, calling the sequester “a greater crisis” because those temporary spending bills are based on budgets that represent a decade of budget cuts.

Critical tribal government programs from health care to public safety are clearly losing ground during this back and forth over spending. So much so that the proposed House budget would cut spending in Indian Country another 19 percent.

“The sequester has deeply affected tribal programs: the Indian Health Service, Indian education funding streams, law enforcement, infrastructure programs such as housing and road maintenance, Head Start, and others. These funding commitments serve some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens and are part of the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribal nations,” NCAI said.

In his news conference Tuesday, President Obama said as much. He said the sequester is already “harmful” to the economy and that Democrats have accepted the Republican budget numbers in exchange for government funding. But here’s the rub: Democrats want this budget to be temporary. The more important debate is about long term spending and a budget for the rest of the year.

Some conservatives understand that. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, wrote in The Guardian newspaper: “There is leverage in the sequester, the 2011 law that caps the growth of domestic discretionary and military spending. Many Democrats find those caps smothering. They want them lifted. Republicans fear the unfunded liabilities of the pay-as-you-go entitlement spending that, unchanged, will bring federal spending to 40% of GDP (from 20%) by 2050.”

Norquist suggests “a possible trade: a temporary and limited lifting of the sequester to allow some more spending now, in return for reducing ... unfunded liabilities in the future.”

But the problem is that there is no single Republican position on any of these issues. Even though I don’t agree with the outcome, at least Norquist’s path forward is well thought out. That cannot be said for the other proposals on the table. Some Republicans are still calling for a delay or defunding of the Affordable Care Act. While still others are proposing yet one more super congressional committee to try and find a solution. That proposal would open up the discussion to all sorts of budget cuts, but exclude tax increases. (No surprise there.)

On Tuesday Speaker John Boehner repeated his stance that the president must begin a conversation. He added the line that passing a temporary spending bill would be “unconditional surrender by Republicans.”

But for Indian Country somehow the discussion needs to get off of this temporary spending measure and return to an annual budget. That doesn’t matter who’s talking, Democrats, Republicans or, better, perhaps, voters in the next election.

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: Federal shutdown poses risk in Indian Country (9/30)
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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