Gimmicks and governing are Old School's last act

By MARK TRAHANT
News From Indian Country

We just watched the last act of The Old School Congress at the end of 2014. In its last moments, it passed bills with thousands of pages, giving permission to members in the House and Senate to sneak legislation into larger bills. And better: To do so in a way without transparency or election consequences.

Arizona’s Rio Tinto mine giveaway is a case in point. Actual legislation that favors an Australian mining company never found enough votes in Congress; it’s not smart politics. Which senator (other than John McCain who has long championed the deal) was willing to go before voters and say this is a smart? But tucking that bill into a Defense Authorization bill? Old School.

It’s a similar story for Sealaska and the lands that were part of a promise made in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. This time the old school process worked in favor of Alaska Natives. “Words cannot describe how pleased we are that this lands bill has passed through Congress,” said Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott. And, unlike the Rio Tinto deal, this one was transparent. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was clear about her role in the deal. But it was still Old School.

The budget bill that Congress passed — the so-called cromnibus — was very much old school. It was signed into law Tuesday. It’s a massive spending bill, $1.1 trillion worth, wrapping up all sorts of regular appropriations with one page or one paragraph special deals that were inserted into the nearly 1,700 page document at the last minute.

But old school has its benefits. Federal Indian programs — especially the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs — were funded with modest increases. This budget means the rest of the year — from now until the end of September — should be drama free. Agencies will know how much money is available and what can be done.

But this is when the Old School disappears from the stage. In a few days a new Republican Congress takes over. While many leaders are fond of the process — the give and take of legislation — the core of the party’s constituency is dismissive. The New School sees legislation as simple, clear and transparent. Not bad values, at that. But they also see legislation as either good or evil. And federal spending is not good. The unifying belief is smaller government. So austerity (a dramatically shrinking government) fits into that narrative.

What’s missing from the discourse, then, is the reality that we are already in an era of austerity. Most federal spending has been declining for five years straight and cutting domestic spending even more will not produce the kind of results that the New School wants.

A little perspective: Regular non-defense, domestic “funding fell by $41 billion between 2010 and 2014 before adjusting for inflation, through a combination of program cuts and use of offsetting savings.  After adjusting for inflation, the four-year cut was $87 billion or 15 percent.

Many programs were cut by substantially more than 15 percent.  And numerous programs that didn’t absorb large dollar cuts nevertheless faced a steady squeeze as their costs (which often rise with inflation) increased while funding did not (or didn’t rise commensurately),” according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “The dramatic effect of this austerity is evident when measuring spending relative to the economy or gross domestic product (GDP) — the standard way to make budgetary comparisons over long periods of time. Spending for these programs stood at 3.4 percent of GDP in 2014, well below the 3.8 percent average over the five decades since 1962 (which is as far back as comparable data are available).”

If I had my way the entire budget would be debated in percentage terms instead of dollars. It’s one thing to debate a trillion dollar budget. It’s a scary number. Eee-yah. It must be bad.

But can the United States afford to spend 3.8 percent instead of 3.4 percent or less? Of course. It makes economic sense. It’s a small investment in programs that do work and do matter.

The New School will ignore these numbers. Most likely they will also skip past the most important part of the budget debate, long-term spending issues, and again zero in on the programs in the domestic budget such as those that fund Indian Country priorities. It’s important to remember that the signature law from this era, the Budget Control Act and the idea of sequestration, picks up again next year and decreases funding limits for years to come.

The budget produced by the Old School is not pretty. It’s ugly. But in the end it’s a far better deal for Indian Country than the budgets that will be produced next year. And the year after that — and so on. After five years, the wave that is austerity is just beginning to crash.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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