An Honorable Budget? No, But It's Headed in the Right Direction For Indian Country

Mark Trahant*

Reprinted from Trahant Reports with the author's permission, February 25, 2014,

President Obama’s next budget, due to be released soon, will be good news for Indian Country.

The Washington Post describes the plan this way: “With the 2015 budget request, Obama will call for an end to the era of austerity that has dogged much of his presidency and to his efforts to find common ground with Republicans. Instead, the president will focus on pumping new cash into job training, early-childhood education and other programs aimed at bolstering the middle class, providing Democrats with a policy blueprint heading into the midterm elections.”

So does this mean austerity will end in Indian Country? Unfortunately, no. But this budget is a new approach &emdash; and it will have many implications in Indian Country.

Let me explain. It starts with this whole business of “austerity” or a government that shrinks itself and the economy.

The problem, essentially, in recent years is that Democrats have bought into the premise of austerity. There is this idea that a smaller government will somehow right the economy because the private sector will then create more jobs. Nonsense. There is far more evidence that when government invests in the economy there will be growth ahead.

The president’s budget adds an important twist to this debate by calling for sharp reductions in military spending. This will not be popular with Republicans ( even though the U.S. spends $600 billion a year, more than the next ten nations combined on defense.)

There should be little debate among tribal governments about austerity. There is not much of a private sector in tribal nations to pick up the slack. So any significant reduction in government, whether it be welfare payments or support for law enforcement programs, reduces the number of jobs at home.

Spending for programs that directly benefit American Indians and Alaska Natives -- such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Service -- are from the portion of the budget that’s considered discretionary spending. Every dollar has to be appropriated by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president. There has to be a “deal” to spend the money.

And discretionary spending is shrinking. Last year it totalled about $1.2 trillion and is projected to drop by $7 billion, less than 1 percent, in 2014.

The budgets that are growing are “mandatory” spending, money that’s automatic, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The difference between the growing mandatory spending and the shrinking discretionary accounts are why it is so essential for American Indians and Alaska Natives to sign up under the Affordable Care Act. It moves funding for Indian health into the automatic spending category.

The president’s new budget does not change that landscape. There are still huge fights ahead over discretionary spending and mandatory spending will continue to grow.

But now, at least, the budget negotiations will not start off with concessions to Republicans. Every part of the budget will be negotiated with the president’s party calling for investment and Republicans countering with more austerity.

The bad news for tribal communities is that any budget that this Congress enacts will be less, far less, that what the president proposes. There are not enough votes in either House to end austerity.

This, of course, is why elections matter. The philosophical debate between austerity versus investment ought to be front in center in November 2014.

It’s not enough, it seems to me, for a candidate to “support” Indian programs all the while advocating for budgets that shrink government because Indian Country cannot escape that larger ideology. On the other hand, should the investment argument win, Indian Country will benefit.

In its budget outlook, the National Congress of American Indians said that “shrinking resources due to sequestration and the Budget Control Act have adversely affected tribes’ ability to meet the needs of their communities.” NCAI called for “an honorable budget for Indian Country will empower tribes so they can provide their people with good health care, quality education, decent and adequate housing, and a level of public safety that any American citizen has the right to demand.”

We won’t know for a couple of weeks if the president’s budget meets the test of “an honorable budget.” But at least we know it’s headed in the right direction. It’s time for austerity to go away.

*Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Comment on Facebook at: