Mark Trahant: Now let the real debate begin on federal spending

There’s nothing like deadline to produce a deal: The president and congressional leaders reached an agreement over the weekend to increase the nation’s debt limit, cut federal spending, and create a powerful committee charged with finding even more budget cuts.

The Era of Government Contraction will likely be set in law. Except for one thing. The fight about the role of government in American society is not over.

Here is how President Barack Obama on Sunday night described the bipartisan deal designed to limit the nation's debt and avoid default:
“The first part of this agreement will cut about $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years -- cuts that both parties had agreed to early on in this process. The result would be the lowest level of annual domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was President -- but at a level that still allows us to make job-creating investments in things like education and research. We also made sure that these cuts wouldn’t happen so abruptly that they’d be a drag on a fragile economy.”

But let’s be clear about what this deal really means. First, domestic (and now military) government programs will shrink over the next decade. Second, that contraction will be terrible for our economy because the already high unemployment level will only grow higher as government-sector layoffs increase and services are cut. This will be a painful process for ordinary Americans. And, third, and most important, this “deal” does not end the fight about the future of the country. Congress must still debate (bicker, really) about:
*Next year’s federal spending through the budget process;

*The role of taxes in this current deal;

*And, the coming expiration of the Bush tax cuts next year. (I should mention: President Obama has a $1 trillion trump card in the tax debate. If Congress does nothing, if he does nothing, then the tax cuts expire and return to levels when Bill Clinton was president.)

A slide presentation from Speaker of the House John Boehner to members of the Republican Caucus says the deal would “cut and cap discretionary spending immediately, saving $917 billion over 10 years.” And that’s before the super charged joint committee comes up with even more painful spending reductions.

Those cuts will be dramatic in their impact on state government budgets, tribal government budgets, and generally, for programs that most people rely on for services, such as school funding, Medicaid and children’s health insurance. We will feel the sting from the Era of Government Contraction; its impacts will be significant and ongoing.

But government will also continue to grow. Why? Simple demographics. The largest generation in history, the baby boomers, has already started to turn 65 years old and is eligible for Medicare (and in many cases, Medicaid). More than 10,000 people a day turn 65, a trend that will continue for nearly the next 20 years. So growth is inevitable. Even with all of the entitlement cuts on the table.

But this is why this debate matters. The sheer size of the baby boom -- combined with a longer life expectancy for all Americans -- makes it impossible to continue on the path we’re on.

We haven’t figured out yet how to talk about this issue. Demographics wasn’t on the agenda, let alone Topic A. Republicans blamed the growth of government on Obama (while most of government spending is Medicare, Medicaid and children’s health insurance) while Democrats countered with rhetoric to protect current seniors.

Domestic spending, which gets most of the attention, and has a disproportionate impact on Indian Country and programs that matter to poor people is pretty much a distraction. You could zero out all domestic spending, eliminating the Bureau of Indian Affairs as some in Washington have proposed, and it would not fix the problem.

So we need to keep the argument desk open. We can move beyond the debt ceiling and get back to the really important debate: finishing what we started with health care reform. We need to lower the cost of health care because that’s the only way to fix our demographic imbalance. The best way to cut health care costs is to manage our expectations -- and be certain that every American has access to care.

We’ve had some difficult, intense ideological fights over the past couple of years. It would be easy to sigh and say we’ve fixed health care and our debt problems. But the real debate is just beginning.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s new book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

Related Stories:
Mark Trahant: Dental aide program is about self-determination (7/25)
Mark Trahant: Some summer reading about federal Indian policies (7/18)
Mark Trahant: Country's problems can't be solved with a tweet (7/11)
Mark Trahant: Tribes and counties better off working together (6/27)
Mark Trahant: It's time for tribes and states to work together (6/21)
Mark Trahant: More than 10 million US jobs lost in last decade (6/14)
Mark Trahant: Indian Country stuck in permanent recession (6/6)
Mark Trahant: 2012 elections important for Indian Country (5/23)
Mark Trahant: Republicans divided over Medicare reforms (5/16)
Mark Trahant: Tribes should prepare for the worst on budgets (5/9)
Mark Trahant: Debt limit debate matters to Indian Country (5/2)
Mark Trahant: Rising gas prices hit Indian Country hardest (4/25)
Mark Trahant: Some tall tales about taxes in United States (4/18)
Mark Trahant: Bringing stories of abuse in Alaska in the light (4/12)
Mark Trahant: GOP proposal for Medicaid affects Indian Country (4/4)
Mark Trahant: Termination returns in the health reform debate (3/28)
Mark Trahant: Investing in young people before we all go broke (3/22)
Mark Trahant: Tragedy in Japan puts Yucca Mountain in scrutiny (3/14)
Mark Trahant: Policy will costs thousands of Indian Country jobs (3/7)
Mark Trahant: Tribes tested by budget cuts to Indian programs (2/28)
Mark Trahant: Tribes need a Plan B in case of federal shutdown (2/22)
Mark Trahant: Budget for Indian programs mostly a lost cause (2/15)
Mark Trahant: The Indian Health Service and state budget shortage (2/7)
Mark Trahant: Protecting the budget for Indian Country programs (1/31)
Mark Trahant: The sky doesn't have to fall on Indian health budget (1/24)
Mark Trahant: Real fight over health care reform all about funding (1/17)
Mark Trahant: Finding a way to a more civil discourse in America (1/10)
Mark Trahant: Indian health care a GOP target in the new Congress (1/3)

Join the Conversation