Mark Trahant: Real cuts to BIA's budget are taking shape in DC

So far, most of the government’s austerity movement has been theoretical. We know the federal budget is shrinking, but the evidence of that has been slow to surface.

Proposals to wipe out the Bureau of Indian Affairs (and replace it with what?) remain little more than spin. Kentucky Sen. Paul Rand’s bill, for example, has no co-sponsors, no hearing schedule and no chance.

But real budget cuts, the kind that will have deep and lasting impact in Native American communities across the country, are starting to take shape.

Last week the Office of Management and Budget sent a memorandum to agencies outlining an approach to the coming budget.

“In light of the tight limits on discretionary spending starting in 2012, your 2013 budget submission to OMB should provide options to support the President's commitment to cut waste and reorder priorities to achieve deficit reduction while investing in those areas critical to job creation and economic growth,” writes Jacob J. Lew, OMB’s director.

“Unless your agency has been given explicit direction otherwise by OMB, your overall agency request for 2013 should be at least 5 percent below your 2011 enacted discretionary appropriation. As discussed at the recent Cabinet meetings, your 2013 budget submission should also identify additional discretionary funding reductions that would bring your request to a level that is at least 10 percent below your 2011 enacted discretionary appropriation," Lew continues.

Jew writes that two budget scenarios give the president enough information to “make the tough choices necessary to meet the hard spending targets.”

Further, the agencies are told they have to make these reductions “without across-the-board reductions or reductions to mandatory spending in appropriations bills, reclassifications of existing discretionary spending to mandatory, or enactment of new user fees to offset existing spending.”

These rules mean that for many programs the 5 or 10 percent reduction will be significantly more than that. Agency leaders are going to have to make tough choices about which programs to cut in half, or, quite possibly, eliminate.

The OMB calls this a “double down” because it might mean more spending on a program that reflects an “opportunity to enhance economic growth.”

At the Bureau of Indian Affairs this plan represents an overall cut between $130 million and $260 million. That is a big number. But it’s even more striking, however, if you take out mandatory spending from such things as already negotiated land and water settlements. These are bills that must be paid.

On top of that, add the spending from current priorities, such as the criminal justice initiative. This included funding for 81 FBI agents assigned to investigate crimes in Indian Country.

Other stealth cuts include rent increases and other fixed costs that are not included in the base budget; programs will just have to find the money.

So what does that mean? It’s hard to tell because if you look at previous budgets because almost every program has been growing because of demand and population increases. But this time around there is going to have to be a hard look at everything. Some programs in order to get to that five or ten percent overall reduction might have to be eliminated.

What’s the most important treaty obligation carried out by the Bureau of Indian Affairs? What can tribes do (without the funding from the federal government?) Moreover, there is no way to get this kind of reduction without reducing the number of people who work at the BIA.

But look beyond the BIA and consider the whole pie. Imagine when any other federal agency looks for ways to trim five or ten percent. Will every cabinet agency see its Indian Desk as a priority in this environment? Or will it “fold” Indian services into the regular budget?

The impact on federal agencies will be easy to see. There will be fewer people working for the government, either through layoffs or by attrition.

But the impact on tribes and tribal employees will also be significant. A ten percent reduction of BIA staff would mean about 900 jobs will disappear; there is no hard data but I suspect at least that many tribal employees would be at risk of losing their jobs. Probably far more.

Now the bad news. The stark budgets that will come from the administration represent the best-case scenario. Congress, either through the appropriations process or through the work of the Super Committee, will present a much uglier proposal.

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.

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