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Budgets Are Full of Spite, Not Promise

Mark Trahant
2/15/11

Tax cuts graphic from Congressional Budget OfficeThe coming year’s proposed federal budget is a lost cause. Mostly.

The budget that will finally emerge from Congress is going to be ugly. A zealous sense of frugality will consume most federal Indian programs, agencies that serve rural communities, and many others that serve important constituent groups in the United States.

At their best: Budgets reflect priorities. They identify the choices ahead and quantify what’s important to a society. So what does the United States care about in its budget messages, both from the president and from the Congress?

At the top of the list, the single most important priority, is the promises made to those older than 65 years. Neither the president nor Congress is suggesting any major—or even minor—changes to the entitlements found in Medicare and Medicaid. (Not yet, anyway.)

But if Medicaid and Medicare represent the promises made to our elders, what about the other promises that were so solemnly made?

Well, here is one good piece of news: The president’s budget protects the Indian health system. “The FY 2012 Budget requests $5.7 billion for the Indian Health Service (IHS), an increase of $589 million over FY 2010. The Budget prioritizes reducing health disparities in Indian Country and improving the Indian health system. This expansion is a continuation of the administration’s policy to work toward fulfillment of the federal government’s obligations to American Indians and Alaska Natives,” says the budget request from the Health and Human Services Department. Even more important the IHS seeks an increase in contract health care—funding patients through outside vendors—as well as more money for supporting tribal government contracts of IHS programs.

If the president can hold this one budget line, I think Indian country will be a winner in the coming budget debate. This is awfully important because the IHS has been so underfunded for so long (and even this budget does not close the remaining gap of what should be spent.)

The budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs won’t make many tribal leaders happy, but it’s not as bad as it could be. (Such a ringing endorsement, I know.) The agency would have to take a cut.

President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2012 budget request for the Interior Department’s Indian Affairs programs is $2.5 billion—a $118.9 million decrease from the FY 2010 Enacted/FY 2011 Continuing Resolution levels. Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk said the budget protects the heart of the mission to serve American Indian and Alaska Natives. “By making these tough choices now, we can continue to make the vital investments needed to sustain economic growth and recovery in Indian Country while maintaining our core functions,” Echo Hawk said.

But the president’s budget is the best possible case—and even then it’s what he terms “painful.”

The problem is that Republicans (and the Tea Party crowd) are almost giddy with their budget alternatives. It’s as if the pain that will be caused in the months ahead brings them joy. There is a spite factor at work that is undeniable. This part of the budget, the domestic discretionary budget, is such a tiny slice of federal spending. Yet all of the action, the demand to “stop federal spending,” focuses on those programs that impact the poorest people in the nation.

That’s why I say this budget is a lost cause. From here on out the numbers will only get worse as the Congress cuts away. Already Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the president’s budget as irresponsible. “This is not an ‘I got the message’ budget,” he said.

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