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Whooshing Past the Strict Congressional Deadline for Difficult Budget Choices

Mark Trahant
11/14/11

The United States Congress is debating two important principles.

There is the idea that a strict deadline forces action. (Or, more accurately, as the science fiction writer Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

On the other hand, there is solid political logic behind the idea that it’s always best to save a decision ... for someone else. (Or, as Mark Twain put it, “never put off 'till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”)

But Congress has been unable to legislate a delay of tomorrow. The many decades of passing forward complex and difficult decisions to the president, the states, and future Congresses, has reached a point of no return.

Only probably not yet.

Remember Congress could not reach a decision a few months ago. So it delegated its constitutional duties to the smaller, Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (also known as, “the Super Committee”) and gave it a strict deadline of Nov. 23 for a proposal to save at least $1.2 trillion. Then a month later Congress was supposed to approve or reject that plan. The enforcement of this deadline was automatic budget cuts -- called “sequestration” -- cuts that both Republicans and Democrats would see as too painful to their key supporters. Half the cuts were set to be pulled from domestic programs, the other half from defense. No one would be happy with those results, so the deadline was supposed to propel the decision-making forward.

That’s where the other principle comes into play. What if this Congress could find a way to delay, pushing the decision to the next Congress? This past weekend two members of the Super Committee said on television news shows that there will be further debate about the automatic cuts that are now required by law. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., told CNN that it’s “very likely that Congress would reconsider the configuration of that sequestration, and consider, is this really the best way to do it?”

But that’s the rub. The “best way” to do it very much depends on your perspective. Democrats are keen on more revenue, especially from the wealthiest taxpayers; Republicans have proposed a tax reform that lowers rates in exchange for a small increase of revenue. According to The New York Times, members of the committee are “looking for an escape hatch that would let them strike an accord on revenue levels but delay until next year tough decisions about exactly how to raise taxes.” That would work by coming up with an outline, then making the tax-writing committees come up with the details.

It’s a similar problem on the spending side. Neither Democrats nor Republicans agree about what programs to cut, except for the every popular, “waste, fraud and abuse.”

If no deal is reached -- and automatic cuts are enforced -- those budgets would begin in 2013. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that without some Super Committee savings, the cuts for Indian Health Service would be at the 2 percent level and other “non-exempt programs” (such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs) would be hit with a 9.3 percent reduction. The Congressional Budget Office says the cuts would be about $109 billion, divided evenly over nine years from 2013 to 2021. What ever budget numbers come out of the Super Committee (if any) must be “scored” by CBO under the law.

Last month the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs asked the Super Committee to be “mindful” of the impact of these program cuts on American Indians and Alaska Natives. Indian Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka asked for an exemption to cuts at the BIA and IHS, as well as a fix for the Carcieri decision (making it difficult for the Interior Secretary to put lands into trust) and funding the new Tribal Law and Order Act.

But that exemption is far from certain. The Super Committee is far more likely to wait until tomorrow before it does anything.

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 recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

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