Remember the Sequester? Trump Budget Would Make Those the Good Old Days

Guest Commentary

Published March 16, 2017

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Remember the sequester? Ah, the good old days. The new Trump Administration budget is short on details, but clear on direction. And we do know two things. First: If enacted, this budget would shrink the federal government to a much smaller size. Except for the military and the Veterans Administration. And, second, this budget guarantees chaos ahead.

Thursday morning the White House officially released the “skinny budget.” That’s an overall statement about the president’s financial goals for the year. It lists priorities, but provides few details. And this document does even less of that than previous skinny budgets. But the agenda, the direction ahead, would create a very different federal government. There is money available to approve (and pretend to regulate) energy projects, but nothing, really nothing, for public broadcasting, the arts, and the humanities. All told some 19 federal agencies would be eliminated.

This is where I should add: Hold on! Every one of these agencies has a constituency in Congress. You’ll see 535 budget revisions coming soon with members working to restore funding, and in some cases, even increasing the total amount of appropriation. But the overall direction is less. This is the eighth year of a slowing (and perhaps shrinking) federal government.

This is also where chaos kicks in. The political tension that surfaced in Congress over the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act will only magnify in this budget debate. And to pass this budget, Republican leaders will need votes from Democrats. And if there is no agreement, then there could a shutdown of the government that could last much longer than previous episodes. The best case scenario is a continuing resolution that results in cuts, but not as dramatic as those proposed by the White House.

So let’s try to make some sense of the president’s proposal as how it relates to Indian Country.

First throughout the document there is only one reference that include the phrase, “and Tribes.” The Obama administration often added that language to routine grants and programs for states and local governments to make it clear that tribes were eligible partners. No more.

The budget does not directly put a number on the Indian Health Service. It only lists IHS as part of the overall budget for the Department of Health and Human Services. That agency “requests $69.0 billion for HHS, a $15.1 billion or 17.9 percent decrease” from the Continuing Resolution level. The first mention in that request includes IHS (that must be good, right?) “The President’s 2018 Budget: Supports direct health care services, such as those delivered by community health centers, Ryan White HIV/AIDS providers, and the Indian Health Service. These safety net providers deliver critical health care services to low-income and vulnerable populations.”

The way this budget will work is that each department will figure out how to make the 18 percent cut (as I said, if it comes to that).

Many have compared this Trump budget to the Reagan-era budgets. I remember how that worked for IHS. The president would drop a number — and Congress would ignore it. Every time. That could happen again.

One interesting increase in the HHS budget is a request for $70 million to prosecute health care fraud. It claims a $5 return for every dollar spent tracking down “fraudulent or improper payments.”

The Department of Interior budget does not provide much information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It only says the  budget: “Supports tribal sovereignty and self-determination across Indian Country by focusing on core funding and services to support ongoing tribal government operations. The Budget reduces funding for more recent demonstration projects and initiatives that only serve a few Tribes.” The budget says it will “sustain” funding for programs that bring in revenue from natural resources, including those programs that serve Indian mineral owners.

Mark Trahant

The budget would eliminate several independent agencies that serve Indian Country, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Denali Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. (Irony: A news release last week asked for tribal applications for next round of grants.)

Many of these agencies will show a number in the budget because that reflects the cost to close the agency. Or as OMB put it “the amount of money that’s necessary for us to unwind our involvement …”

In addition Agriculture would eliminate the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, Commerce would eliminate the Minority Business Development Agency and NOAA grants supporting coastal and marine management. At Energy the budget would eliminate the weatherization program. At HHS, the budget proposes to end Community Services Block Grants as well as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Homeland Security would sharply curtail or eliminate grants to states and local governments (tribes, I assume). Even Meals on Wheels programs for seniors would be eliminated.

Another program that is slated for elimination is the Transportation Department’s Essential Air Service for rural airports — including those that serve remote reservation and 60 Alaska Native communities.

The only mention of “and Tribes” in the budget proposal is at the Environmental Protection Agency where the budget will avoid duplication by “concentrating EPA’s enforcement of environmental protection violations on programs that are not delegated to States, while providing oversight to maintain consistency and assistance across State, local, and tribal programs.”

The actual numbers of this budget mean little. They will go up and down. Some of the headlines, such as the elimination of public broadcasting, will survive because of support found in Congress. But it’s important to remember that this is the president’s agenda. This administration is hostile to every program that’s identified. So even if those programs are funded, the agencies will have a difficult task going forward.

Some of this agenda is nonsense. There are two ways to spend money on global warming: Learning about the science and trying to change behavior to lower carbon dioxide emissions. Or money for higher sea walls and community mitigation. This budget cuts the latter. That won’t work for long. When a community is severely impacted by fires or other climate catastrophe, the money will have to follow. Period.

But for now the debate is all about the president’s plan.

As OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said at the White House briefing room on Wednesday: “This is the “America First” budget.  In fact, we wrote it using the President’s own words.  We went through his speeches, we went through articles that have been written about his policies, we talked to him, and we wanted to know what his policies were, and we turned those policies into numbers. So you have an “America First” candidate, you have an “America First” budget.”

Only that’s a budget that means significantly less for the First Americans.

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. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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