President Donald J. Trump has outlined his budget for fiscal year 2020. It would slash funding for virtually every domestic program, add money to the military budget, and of course, build a border wall. The document is titled: “A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First.” The president’s budget would “save” nearly $2.7 trillion, more budget cuts proposed than any administration in history. And, the White House said, the budget will balance in 15 years.
Only Congress, not the president, decides how money will be spent in the federal system. At best the administration writes a budget that initiates a conversation. The real work of the budget occurs in the Senate and House appropriations committees.
Not that presidential budgets are totally worthless. As the White House said a year ago the budget is a “messaging document.” Last year’s budget assumed Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a block grant. As I wrote a year ago: “The votes are not there for that. It’s fantasy.”
And that was when Republicans controlled Congress. The House is now under Democratic Party control turning the dial even more toward government.
So it’s not useful to get excited about the numbers in this White House budget (probably any presidential budget for that matter) and instead focus on the larger issues -- three secret messages embedded into the budget debate.
The first secret is not so secret: President Trump hates government.
So this budget is a messaging document that makes that clear on issues ranging from environmental protection to housing. The budget “would make poverty more widespread, widen inequality and racial disparities, and increase the ranks of the uninsured. It would also underfund core public services and investments in areas that are important for long-term growth, both in 2020 and for the next decade. And at the same time that it calls for these extensive budget cuts reportedly out of concern for the deficit, it provides costly tax cuts tilted to those at the top,” according to Paul Van De Water, Joel Friedman, and Sharon Parrott of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “The budget’s major themes are clear — and disturbing.”
But the president does not hate all government. One of the tricks in this budget is to limit Defense Department increases in the regular spending plan by funding key operations outside of the budget. The idea here is to limit the impact of the Budget Control Act of 2011, a spending limit that Congress put on itself for the decade ahead. Add it up and the Pentagon (which already saw an increase of $719 billion in fiscal year 2019, would reach $750 billion in spending.
But if Trump hates government (except for the military and the wall), Congress does not. Even Republicans ignored the last budget and that’s where the debate about spending starts.
The second secret: Congress has its own budget problems. To pass a budget there has to be agreement among the Senate, the House, and the president. That process broke down over a continuing resolution resulting in the longest government shutdown in history.
Last year, by the deadline of October 1, when the budget is supposed to be enacted, Congress had only passed five out of 12 appropriations bills. This year’s process is already behind schedule.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said: “Congress often doesn’t even pass a budget, and the numbers our leaders put out often seem to be pulled out of thin air. The entire process is broken, and this is no way to run the world’s leading economy.”
The committee posts a running list of fiscal deadlines -- including a lifting of the debt ceiling that was supposed to happen on March 2 -- that could result in even more chaos and shutdowns. Currently the Treasury Department is using “extraordinary measures” to avoid that debt limit, basically pretending some obligations do not apply. But that cannot go on forever. Sooner or later Congress and the president will have to agree on a new debt limit (or a permanent removal of the limit, a process that was included in a House budget plan).
The big picture is that Congress and the president must reach a deal on spending under the Budget Control Act or there will be budget cuts of more than 11 percent on the existing budget figures (Defense and Domestic programs are cut about the same under the sequester … an idea to make it easier to reach a deal).
This is the economic version of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A three-way gunfight, or a truel. Those who hate government, especially domestic programs, want money for the military. Those who would like to significantly spend less on the military, but add dollars for domestic federal programs. And then the President of the United States is a wild card. (At least in the movie the wild card character fought without actually having a loaded gun.)
The third secret might be the most important: Congress knows this chaos is expensive and bad management. There might be enough votes around to fix the process, particularly for programs involving American Indians and Alaska Natives.
National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel, Chickasaw, in the State of the Indian Nations speech last month said the government shutdown was a “pointless crisis wreaked financial havoc on millions of Americans, including a disproportionate number of Native people.
It represented a gross dereliction of duty by our leaders in Washington, who are sworn to uphold the federal government’s legally mandated trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations by providing adequate, stable funding for programs that serve our people.”
Tribes met that funding challenge by stepping up in a variety of ways ranging from paying federal workers to feeding their families. “Tribal nations took these steps because as responsible governments, we take care of our communities, no matter what. We certainly don’t manufacture crises to avoid doing so,” he said. ”And with it likely to take months, perhaps years, for us to fully recover from this shutdown, Indian Country cannot afford – and America should not stand for – another one.”
The solution is for Congress to appropriate funds for key programs, such as those that provide services in Indian Country, at least a year in advance. This is already happening for many education programs and there is growing support for Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs advance funding from members of both Democrats and Republicans. One bill co-authored by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has the support of the bipartisan Co-Chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, Chickasaw Nation, and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, Pueblo of Laguna.
“During the government shutdown, basic everyday needs like health clinics, tribal justice services, and social services for children, families, and seniors went unfunded, putting Native American communities at risk,” McCollum said. “These programs are critical to life, health, and safety in these communities, and the federal government has a legal and moral responsibility to ensure funding for our trust and treaty responsibilities is not interrupted. Advance appropriations for Indian Country is a promising avenue for making good on our commitments to our Native American brothers and sisters.”
“Alaska Native and American Indian communities have historically been short-changed when it comes to receiving high-quality health care to meet their unique needs,” Young said. “The goal of these bills is simple: enable Congress to appropriate funding for the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Indian Education one fiscal year in advance.”
Given the increasing budget uncertainty … this might be the year to make it so.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports
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