President's Proposed 2014 Budget Better for Natives

Mark Trahant
April 15, 2013


President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2014 does not roll back austerity. But it would significantly shift resources, adding money to important programs, and protecting much of Indian country from government contraction.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs budget request is $2.6 billion, an increase of $31.3 million over what Congress enacted in 2012.

“The president’s budget request for Indian Affairs reflects his firm commitment to keeping our focus on strengthening and supporting tribal nations, and protecting Indian country,” Kevin K. Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs reported last week. “While realizing the benefits from improvements to Indian Affairs program management, the request supports our mission to federally recognized tribes, particularly in the areas of trust lands and natural resource protection. The request also promotes economic development, improves education, and strengthens law enforcement and justice administration.”

Mark Trahant

There’s a lot to like in this year’s budget request. There would be additional money for law enforcement, police, courts, and expanded domestic violence services. There would be more money for trust management and real estate. And, most important, there would be additional investments in the Bureau of Indian Education (such as a $3 million scholarship fund for post-graduate education in sciences).

To my way of thinking this budget does not represent what kind of education funding is needed. Indian country represents a young population that I think should be an essential part of balancing the country’s demographics (basically the retirement of the baby boom generation plus a longer life expectancy). But that’s a bigger issue than this budget request. (A good detailed example of this is in The Washington Post’s wonkblog where Ezra Klein writes that the federal government spends $7 on the elderly for every $1 spend on kids.)

The funding picture is similar at the Indian Health Service, basically, a request for more, even if not enough. The president’s budget calls for $4.430 billion in direct spending, and a total increase of $243.6 million over what Congress enacted in 2012. “The request includes funds to support activities identified by the tribes as budget priorities including increasing resources for pay costs, funding medical inflationary costs for the Purchased/Referred Care program (formerly known as Contract Health Services); funding contract support costs shortfall; and staffing for new/replacement facilities,” according to the budget request to Congress.

It wasn’t all that many years ago that the president’s budget request for IHS was just the beginning of the process. The appropriations committees in the House and Senate would look at the numbers, match it to the need, and in many cases find more money to spend. If it were up to the subcommittee chairs that would still happen. The legislators who are nearest the actual programs and what they do understand the challenge and look for improvements.

But the problem – and the challenge for this budget, and I suppose the next – is that Congress no longer works that way. Congress can barely assemble enough votes together to pass a continuing resolution (based on that same 2012 budget). That’s probably the course ahead again. The only good news here is that appropriation committees will have some leeway to mitigate the impact of the sequester by setting priorities. But the overall spending will be stuck on that 2012 appropriations. That effectively means more austerity and deeper budget cuts next year.

There are now three budgets that have been proposed and will be debated: One from the president, one from the Senate and one from the House. The president’s budget represents a compromise – less spending than the Senate, but way more money than the House.

But speaking for House Republicans, Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski, said Obama's budget “isn't what compromise looks like.” What does compromise look like, at least from the view from the House? Even sharper budget cuts. And probably in the form of another continuing resolution.


Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: