Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, urged Congress to support legislation that clarifies the Secretary’s authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized tribes.

Elections 2012: Will Election Resolve the Big Stuff? Disaster Ahead if It Doesn’t

Mark Trahant
9/25/12

It is said that elections have consequences. One side wins, the other becomes the loyal opposition. Then the game is fought again with new or sometimes the same result.

But that’s the old game. The new game – at least until it changes – is never-ending. President Barack Obama won the election four years ago and the challenge of the loyal opposition was to make him a one-term president. Flip that around and the Republicans nearly sweep Congress (remember they did miss their goal in the Senate) and begin putting forth radically different policy proposals. The Republican House dutifully enacts these measures, only to watch them disappear into a Senate committee.

Even within that narrative framework there are small issues. But the big stuff, such as the fiscal future of the United States, is put off until the next election. Or the next election after that.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are not players in that game. The issues that impact tribal communities are small, almost asterisks on a budget line. Yet the impact of those decisions – or non-decisions – matter significantly to Native American communities where there are Indian Health Service clinics, housing programs, or Bureau of Indian Affairs’ law and order or roads.

Today the National Congress of American Indians released results from its “2012 Tribal Unity Impact Week.”

NCAI said: “By the end of the week, the House of Representatives had passed the FEMA Reauthorization Act of 2012, which includes tribal amendments to the Stafford Act, and the Senate had confirmed the nomination of Kevin Washburn, Dean of the University of New Mexico’s School of Law, as the new Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

“The unified efforts of tribal leaders and advocates last week brought an immediate impact and offers encouraging signs for our remaining priorities,” said Jefferson Keel, President of NCAI. “Two goals of Indian country were achieved last week with the passage of the FEMA reauthorization in the House and the confirmation of the new Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs by the Senate. In this political environment it says a lot about the non-partisan nature of the U.S. government’s trust responsibility to tribal nations and the importance of tribal unity efforts in Washington, D.C. – we’re very pleased and grateful for all our partners’ efforts.”

But that nonpartisan spirit, like the election resolution that never comes, fades away when the lens zooms out.

“Congress will soon debate how to avoid the ‘fiscal cliff,’ the term for a series of deadlines at the end of 2012 when tax cuts expire and automatic spending cuts – known as sequestration – will take effect,” according to a NCAI analysis, “Honoring the Trust Responsibility in the Federal Budget.

“Decision-makers should avoid any more harmful cuts to Indian programs which would threaten the health and welfare of Indian people,” it says. “Under the Budget Control Act (BCA), most federal programs will face a destructive across-the-board cut of 8.2 percent in January 2013 if Congress fails to enact a plan before then to reduce the national debt by $1.2 trillion. As the nation faces critical choices about how to address the deficit while preventing another recession, tribal leaders urge decision-makers to sustain funding in ways that honor our trust, support our people, and strengthen America.”

That certainly describes the challenge. And in normal times the friends of Indian country – many of whom met with tribal leaders last week – would rush to resolve this issue. And that may happen again this time. But right now both Democrats and Republicans are rushing to jump off the fiscal cliff for different reasons. Democrats refuse to budge without a tax increase, while most Republicans won’t move forward with a tax increase. Democrats want to preserve critical funding for domestic, discretionary programs, while Republicans want to do the same for military spending. And, to make it worse, unless consensus suddenly surfaces, there are few ways to make the numbers pencil out.

“A significant number of programs funding trust responsibilities are in the non-defense discretionary portion of the federal budget, and the resolution to the current fiscal conflict could considerably impact resources to tribal governmental services and Indian programs for years to come,” the NCAI paper finds.

And, if Defense spending is protected “and the additional funds were taken across the board from all other programs subject to automatic cuts, the reductions could be much more detrimental to Indian country.”

What would those cuts look like? The numbers are staggering. The Indian Heath Service would lose $317 million and another $36 million for facilities. Across the board, NCAI reports the reductions would be brutal. At the BIA the total would be around 14 percent. The Indian energy program at the Department of Energy, 15 percent. Tribal colleges, 15 percent. Schools, 13 percent, and Head Start another 8 percent.

“Across-the-board cuts at the sequester level of 8.2 percent, or deeper, to investments in education, housing, roads, law enforcement, tribal courts, energy development, job training, and health care would deal a devastating blow to the economic conditions in Indian country,” NCAI said.

The whole idea of sequestration was this: The budget cuts would be too horrible to think about. Now too few are thinking about or debating the specifics of sequestration until we jump off that cliff.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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