President Donald Trump at the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 8, 2018. Photo: Shealah Craighead / White House
Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Let's make 2018 the year we focus on policy instead of tweets

Make 2018 the year we fight about policy (instead of tweets from Donald J. Trump)

By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports
#IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

Elections in America are usually fought over nonsense. Trivial topics. Stuff that grabs headlines. Or issues that remind voters why they are in Political Party A or B. (And for good measure there is always contention about the personality of a So So Candidate who does (or does not) connect with voters.)


This problem is particularly acute in the Trump era. The recent news cycle pits President Donald J. Trump versus Steve Bannon. The White House statement that Bannon “lost his mind” is attention grabbing. Our political minds want to know what this means for the next election and the Trump coalition (which still defies logic because it subtracts supporters, rather than reaching out and finding new ones).

But politics ought to be more about policy. What choices are being made in our name? What’s the best way to improve the lives of children, the next generation? How do we invest public resources, that means tax dollars, into making life better? These are questions that get far less attention than the latest presidential tweet.

Then the president and Congress have already set the rules for this debate when they passed tax cuts. Now, every act of Congress, every budget from the administration, will set out to justify (and pay for) that law.

This is the problem: The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the federal deficits will increase to $1.8 trillion over the next decade. “As a result of those higher deficits, debt held by the public would increase from the 91.2 percent of gross domestic product in CBO’s June 2017 baseline to 97.5 percent,” CBO said. That means that the annual budget deficit will be nearly equal to the entire economy.

But CBO is on the conservative side of this argument. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget warns that after adding interest costs the tax plan would be enough to “increase debt to 111 percent of gross domestic product … That would be higher than any time in U.S. history, and no achievable amount of economic growth could finance it.”

A federal debt that’s bigger than the entire economy. And, key phrase here, “no achievable amount of economic growth could finance it.”

Already leaders of the Congress — the same bunch who did proposed this tax legislation — are now saying the country cannot afford to spend money on social programs.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (who is soon to retire) said he was one the earliest sponsors of the Children’s Health Insurance Program — “I invented it,” he said on the Senate floor. He says he doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t support its reauthorization. Yet. So he preaches that this country must live within its means.

Congress gave corporations a tax break worth $1.3 trillion. And another $425 billion was rewarded to small businesses that pay their taxes on individual returns (so-called pass through taxes). On top of that (for desert, perhaps) the Congress gave the very wealthiest, those few who pay estate taxes on inherited wealth, a break worth $83 billion. Even though those numbers reflect a decade of revenue, it still means that many in Congress say there is not enough money to fund the government.

That’s a rotten framework. But it’s more complicated when you add one more layer: The Budget Control Act of 2011. That law was passed to limit Congress’ power to spend freely. It sets in place budget caps for domestic and defense spending. If the caps are exceeded, then an automatic sequester (remember that?) kicks in unless Congress passes a waiver. That deal linked spending for defense and domestic programs.

Now it’s a problem because the Republicans want to spend a lot more money on the Pentagon. They want that part of the budget to go up. But because it’s linked to domestic programs — such as those that impact Indian Country — that cannot happen without an agreement with the Democrats. Wednesday the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate met to try and make that happen. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described the meeting as “positive and productive.”

Democrats, for once, have some power to bargain. More spending for defense cannot happen without their votes. (Republicans remain divided over all federal spending.) So Democrats are trying to see how much leverage they have and over what issues. It’s likely that domestic spending will be a part of any deal, and possibly the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Several Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have said they will not vote for any budget unless it includes a provision to protect immigrants who were brought to this country as children, the so-called Dreamers. (President Trump removed Obama-era protections for this group and it’s a moral imperative for Democrats (and many Republicans) to protect some 800,000 people from deportation. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, began under President Obama.)

That’s a huge agenda. It’s likely that Congress will again push it forward past its deadline of Jan. 19. Even if there is a deal, say today, then the actual writing of the budget will have to go back to the Appropriations subcommittees to be put into legislative language. That will take time.

Federal spending on Indian Country ought to be in a different category, one that does not yet exist. There should be a line item for treaty obligations. Should.

So far the budget numbers are hard to know for federal Indian programs. The Trump administration’s budget was largely ignored. And the House and Senate committee numbers look lean, but fine. But the thing is until there is an actual deal, none of these numbers matter. After a deal each committee will have to go back and determine what money can actually be spent. If it’s a good deal, the numbers will stay the same or even improve. The alternative? No words.

Of course the bigger issue in Congress is about priorities. This Congress has already decided that tax cuts are the most important thing that had to be done. So every fight over the budget has to somehow go through that filter. There is not enough money because Congress is giving corporations $1.4 trillion so they can be more competitive and profitable. (Funny: thought they were both.)

As economist William G. Gale wrote for the Brookings Institute: “… tax cuts are not free; they eventually have to be financed with higher taxes or lower spending. And once those financing requirements are taken into account, most low- and middle-income households are likely to be worse off than they would have been without the tax cut in the first place.”

Worse off. Then Indian Country knew that before the tax bill ever reached the president’s desk.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Find him on Twitter @TrahantReports