Mark Trahant

Bringing stories about sex abuse in Alaska Native communities into the light

ST. MICHAEL, Alaska — It’s trite to write that winter days are short this far north. And it is remarkable watching the sun skate through the sky in such a hurry to disappear. But more than the sun’s pace, it’s the angle that makes a December visit this close to the Arctic Circle so amazing. The rays from the low horizon create stark shadows, an almost frightening mix of light and dark. 

These harsh shadows define, for me, the terrible abuses by Catholic church authorities that took place here and in so many other parts of Alaska. The remote locations and a network of pedophiles and other abusers made these villages ideal settings both for the crimes and later as a way to avoid prosecution. Hundreds of victims brought this tragic story to light. But in the shadows there remains this fact: Not a single person has been criminally prosecuted for their actions. 

How could this happen to so many children? Why didn’t it stop? And why didn’t perpetrators go to jail? 

Those questions will be answered April 19 on PBS’ Frontline in a 30-minute piece called, “The Silence.” I was the reporter on that film. It was a co-presentation with Native American Public Telecommunications. The Silence was produced by Tom Curran, who grew up Catholic and is from Alaska. He has been working on the story for nearly four years. The veteran documentary filmmaker had shot several Iditarod races and said he felt a deep connection with Native communities. “I saw this as an egregious example of the church did … and it was a story that had to be told.” 

One aspect of that story is the pedophile partnership between Father George Endal and Joseph Lundowski that began in the early 1960s. Endal, acting without the church’s authorization, named Lundowski as a “brother” and placed him in charge of a dormitory. The story should have ended there when a student caught Lundowski in a criminal sexual act. But police weren’t told and the crimes continued for many years. Indeed, some church officials suggested dismissing Lundowski in 1965. 

But instead of dismissal, the two were sent to St. Michael where Lundowski’s sexual predation of children “accelerated.” Lundowski began acting as a de-facto Deacon, including administering communion and teaching catechism. That is important because many of the molestations, including rape, occurred after Mass when Lunkowski would bribe victims with candy, money, or sacramental wine.  

“I was just a kid,” Ben Andrews told FRONTLINE. “Father Endal and Joseph Lundowski, they couldn’t stop molesting me once they started. It was almost an everyday thing. Father Endal kept telling me that it would make me closer to God.” 

Andrews’ story is heartbreaking (more about that on FRONTLINE). He is a survivor. Indeed, the word “survivor” is used so often in the context of sexual abuse. It’s always an important word because it conveys a sense of life, that somehow a young man or woman survived an unthinkable evil. But at St. Michael there is a literal definition because each of these victims are those who lived. Nearly every  survivor carries in their memory the story or stories about a family member who did not survive. Too many could not live with what happened and killed themselves.  

Surviving in a village is not easy even under the best of circumstances. The theme of this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention was just that, village survival. It’s an issue because there are not nearly enough jobs and far too many social ills. Yet, somehow, people survive and pass along their hope for a better day. 

The one word that I carry with me from this experience is “resilient.” Andrews, and so many others, talk about forgiveness; it’s an idea that draws from the best of what it means to be a human being. 

My favorite experience in St. Michael was a night of traditional songs and dances.  

What else here radiates as bright as the sun? How about those moments when a community comes together as it has for several thousand years. The songs, stories and dances that made ancestors smile, still do. It’s that resilience of spirit, of a people being together, that surfaced as fast as the sunrise. You can see the dawn in people’s faces. 

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard. 

Medicaid proposal–it would be bad

COMMENTARY

The national budget debate is multi-directional. Most of the story, so far, has centered on this year’s federal spending, basically how to strip dollars from a fiscal year that’s roughly half over. Then, there is the fight over next year’s budget, the one that is supposed to start on October 1. And, at the same time, there is an argument about the role of the federal government and long-term spending promises. 

I think of these issues a bit like a line from the movie, Ghostbusters. “Don’t cross the streams,”  one of the characters warns. “Why?” asks another. “It would be bad.” 

We’re at the point in our story where the streams are crossing. The flash of lights and heated rhetoric make it difficult, if not impossible, to explore the issues with either a methodical or strategic approach. We’re a captive to the budget as a show, played on so many stages. 

But underlying the theatrics is a basic truth, that much of the growth of government spending stems from demographics, not out-of-control government agencies. Simply put: We have a large older population asking a smaller younger cohort to pay the bills. The cost of an aging society is not just a problem in the United States, it’s a global trend.  

This is why health care reform matters: We have to lower the cost of health care if we want any chance at a real solution.

This week House Budget Chairman, Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, will propose sweeping changes to Medicare and Medicaid. “Starting 10 years from now, in 2021, Americans would no longer enroll in the Medicare program, but instead receive vouchers for private insurance,” says a report on CNN. “On Medicaid, Ryan’s plan calls for deep cuts, as much as $1 trillion. The program would also fundamentally change — the federal share of the Medicaid system would become block grants to the states.” 

The Medicaid portion of this plan has huge implications for Indian Country.  The Indian Health System has been improving its systems for collecting money from third-party sources, including Medicaid. Medicaid is a partnership with the federal and state governments (the federal government pays a range from about half to three-quarters of the cost) and states in recent years have complained about their share that arrangement. 

Ryan’s proposal would give states money with few restrictions and let them design the system that works best for them. 

The problem is that Medicaid is supposed to do several things at once. One focus — the one that gets most of the attention — is a government health insurance program for the poor. Some 60 million children and adults are now covered and the expansion of Medicaid by at least another 16 million people is a key component of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (Medicaid already represents 16 percent of all health care spending.) 

But another charge of Medicaid is paying for long-term care, primarily for the elderly. Roughly 40 percent of all long-term care spending is Medicaid. 

That difference in mission is critical to the political support of Medicaid. State legislators might be eager to cut services, eligibility and other programs for the poor. But not quite so zealous when it comes to paying the cost of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. 

The big deal here is that now anyone eligible for Medicaid, young or poor, is supposed to be served. If the program shifts to block grants, that guarantee will disappear. The federal money will be capped — and states will likely do the same. And in theory, state and federal budgets will be balanced. There is no way that politicians would kick elderly out of nursing homes to save money, so most of the block grant cuts would be at the expensive of children and poor people. Only people still get sick — and without basic Medicaid coverage they will show up in another part of the system, such as emergency rooms, and health care costs will continue to explode. 

We ought to be looking for ways to provide all Americans with universal health care coverage because it’s the only sure way to lower the overall cost of health care. 

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

A year after health care reform, the discourse of termination returns

Just over a year ago President Barack Obama signed into law the health care reform bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That measure, of course, also includes the permanent authorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

So what has happened since the president signed the bill into law on March 23, 2010? That question cannot be answered. Not yet. Part of the answer is working its way through the court system with legal challenges. And other parts of the answer are stuck in a political debate even as federal agencies continue to write rules for its implementation.

The administration has lived up to the spirit and the intent of the health care reform law. A new report by the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Health Board and the National Council of Urban Indian Health says it this way: “… the President’s budget was a true commitment to the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The FY12 budget shows increased funding for IHS, Administration on Aging, and Health Resources and Services Administration.”

Indeed the president asked Congress for a 14 percent increase for programs such as the always underfunded Contract Health Services, alcohol and substance abuse, facility construction and to implement the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

In any other year that all would be great news. But the rub is that Congress, not the president, appropriates money. And that process is left hanging by the deep divide in Congress about the very nature and role of the federal government.

The new law, for example, sets out a funding formula for IHS, tribal contracted or tribal organization health care facilities based on what is spent for health insurance for federal employees. The “need” is at least 55 percent of that benchmark, but even with recent gains the spending-level remains at about 46 percent. At best allies of tribes in Congress are talking about protecting the Indian health system — not securing additional money. It’s going to be a tough sell on Capitol Hill to get even modest funding.

It’s important to remember that most of the money that will be required for health care comes from the entitlement portion of the budget. That is Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance. This is money on automatic pilot. If a person is eligible, the money is supposed to be there without an annual appropriation. But the money for the Indian health system requires Congress to act in the affirmative. It has to agree to spend the money. That difference is why there’s always a shortage of money and a failure to reach the 55 percent federal employee benchmark.

We in Indian Country understand health care as a federal government obligation. We know the history — and have been painful witnesses to the shortage of funds. I bring this up because there’s another narrative surfacing; one that parallels the language used decades ago to justify termination of federal services.

First, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul called for the elimination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a drastic reduction in Indian health spending. Then last week Fox’s John Stoessel said:

“Why is there a Bureau of Indian Affairs? There is no Bureau of Puerto Rican Affairs or Black Affairs or Irish Affairs. And no group in America has been more helped by the government than the American Indians, because we have the treaties, we stole their land. But 200 years later, no group does worse.”

Rand and Stoessel might as well have attributed their ideas to Sen. Arthur Watkins. A generation ago the Republican from Utah was the congressional champion of termination. He promised to “free the Indians” from all those special restrictions against private property (the same ones Stoessel talked about on Fox).  “This is not a novel development, but a natural outgrowth of our relationship with the Indians,” Watkins wrote in 1957.  “…After all, the matter of freeing the Indian from wardship status is not rightfully a subject to debate in academic fashion, with facts marshalled here and there to be maneuvered and countermaneuvered in a vast battle of words and ideas.”

By every measure termination was a disaster as a public policy. It was legal theft and a failure so great that even a casual reference should be outside that battle of words and ideas.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

We’re not broke … and we must invest in young people or the old folks will lose

Google the phrase “we can’t afford,” and some 209 million results pop up that capture our Great Public Debate. Articles range from a defense of any public program, schools, health care, fighting homelessness, to preservation of the U.S. military. On the other side of the Google divide different articles suggest we can no longer afford Social Security, Medicaid or just about any of the social programs operated by government.

But if you Google the phrase “we’re broke,” there are only 92 million returns. The stories are far less divergent. The storyline “we’re broke” seems to be sticking. It’s become accepted (although there are a growing number of logical challenges). Much of that discourse stems from the drumbeat from Speaker of the House John Boehner who along with fellow Republicans, often repeats “we’re broke” as an answer to just about any question. (Or “broke going on bankrupt.”)

However both the “what-can-we-afford?” and “we’re broke” arguments miss big it comes to answering the questions “Who are we? What kind of country do we want to be? And what’s really important to our future success?” Answer those first, then you can debate what resources are required to get there.

We can’t develop a national strategy if our policy choices are simply reactive. To me, the best public policy decisions reflect an understanding of where we need to go, matched by the data from existing demographics. We should start with who are we? That’s the critical question to answer before we debate resources.

Who are we? We are divided by demographics. We are older and white; we are younger and brown. It’s those two trends that we must figure out before we answer any question about resources.

Consider New Mexico as the future of America.

“There are going to be more and more states that are going to look like New Mexico,” Mark Mather, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks international demographics, said in The Denver Post.

New Mexico grew 13 percent between 2000 and 2010 to 2.1 million people. The state’s Latino population accounted for 78 percent of that growth — and now account for 46 percent of the population. It’s not a majority — yet. And American Indians are nearly 9 percent of the state. Both groups have an average age population that is far younger than the rest of the country. Indeed, nationally, another way to look at the data is that Latino, American Indian, Alaska Native, African American and Asian American populations will represent the majority of all children by as soon as 2023.

But the elderly are growing fast, too. New Mexico’s 60-year-old plus population is now 18 percent and in by 2025 is projected to top 30 percent of the population. Elders are picking Sun Belt states like New Mexico to live. As demographer William H. Frey put it a few years ago for The Brookings Institute:

“The aging of the baby boom generation makes pre-seniors this decade’s fastest growing age group, expanding nearly 50 percent in size from 2000 to 2010. Poised to create a ‘senior tsunami’ beginning in 2011, this group will be more highly educated,have more professional women, and exhibit more household diversity than previous generations entering traditional retirement age.”

Who gets to pay for this senior tsunami? Of course the younger people who will soon represent the majority of this country. But this becomes a thorny question when it’s framed by the discourse about being broke.

We’re already telling the future bill payers that we can’t afford to educate this cohort of Americans (unless they amass unbelievable amounts of debt). Or we can’t afford to keep them healthy. And we can’t afford to invest in new ideas that create jobs for this growing group of people (even when we know the current structure of jobs won’t be enough).

This is backwards. We need a new social contract — a governing agreement — that promotes the idea that if we invest in young Latino, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, then perhaps, just perhaps, they will agree to tax themselves enough to pay the bills for a society with a large population of older, whiter Americans. This social contract assumes the older population will, in turn, invest now in the future generations promise.

If we think we as a nation think we are broke now, imagine what it will be like if the next generation refuses to pick up the tab.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

 


Japan reminds us about the inevitability of chaos–and why Yucca Mountain must be dropped

Like most people I watched the events in Japan unfold on cable and through Facebook throughout the weekend. It’s great to see posts from friends and friends-of-friends who are OK. However I watch other reports with growing fears for the people who live there. It’s heart-wrenching to see so much human drama, even as the hope of resiliency rises every day with new light.

Like the sunrise, Chaos is inevitable. Japan is the obvious example of that. The worst earthquake in that country’s history, followed by an even more devastating tsunami, followed by a crisis at several of that country’s nuclear power plants. Chaos.

But chaos has a purpose — reminding us that our planning has limits. It’s a useful way to think about how we prepare for that inevitable surprise. We know we are vulnerable, too. I live near a super volcano, Yellowstone, that’s probably impossible to prepare for because when it erupts there won’t be much left where I live.

But not every disaster is inevitable; only chaos is that. I think the story from Japan ought to be a call to rethink what could happen because of our own folly.  A case in point: Building a nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Some 70,000 tons of nuclear fuel rods are stored at commercial plants around the country in temporary facilities. These were supposed to be transferred under a 1987 law to Yucca Mountain where they would be buried “permanently.” For a variety of reasons — political, legal and scientific — Yucca Mountain has remained off-line. The Obama administration has said the project is not worth doing and there is no money in the 2012 federal budget for the project. A couple of years ago the Timbisha Shoshone said they were unconvinced that the project was really over.

“There’s always a chance it could be revived. As far as this project goes, it looks like it’s still moving ahead,” Chairman Joe Kennedy told the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Indeed, even now, some in Congress would revive Yucca Mountain as part of a deal to build new nuclear power plants.

This is crazy talk. Especially now. The repository is in a seismic zone with at least 10 active faults in the area.

What is more, in order for Yucca Mountain to work as a permanent waste repository you have to believe that our current engineering and safety standards will be viable for 10,000 years. That’s a longer time frame than any structure in the history of humans. (The oldest building known to science was built about 6,500 years ago.)

A 10,000-year time horizon is the most arrogant of human enterprise, but it also ignores the probability of chaos. There will be an earthquake or something else that we didn’t expect. The Department of Energy (before pulling the plug) said as much:

“The preliminary repository design includes a long-lived waste package and takes advantage of the desert environment and geologic features of Yucca Mountain. Together, the natural and engineered barriers can keep water away from the waste for thousands of years. Analyses of the preliminary design using mathematical models, though subject to uncertainties, indicate that public health and the environment can be protected,” a DOE report said. “For 10,000 years after the repository is closed, people living near Yucca Mountain are expected to receive little or no increase in radiation exposure.”

The phrase, “subject to uncertainties” is government-speak for chaos, or making a decision based on what we don’t know. A decision that has to be perfect for 10,000 years, no less.

According to Scientific American, Japan is not our only nuclear wake-up call. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Waterford nuclear plant outside New Orleans was plunged into a blackout, reliant on backup generators to keep the reactor core and spent fuel on site cool. The issue didn’t make the news because it was a near miss, just as Three Mile Island notoriously missed being far more devastating by a few ticks,” wrote Rita King (a former journalist who covered the nuclear power industry).

King concludes: “… as the mysterious white plume rose over Fukushima, the distant possibility of old systems and natural disasters pairing up to show us again how short-sighted we are came into sharp focus.”

A sharp focuses that doesn’t include the inevitability of chaos.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

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BELOW: CCTV video of tsunami wave hitting Sendai airport

We’re entering the Federal World of Less. That’ll cost Indian Country thousands of jobs

Finally the economy seems to be creating jobs again. Last week a federal jobs survey showed an increase in 222,000 private sector jobs, a full year of growth that added 1.5 million jobs at companies and small businesses.

As Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers put it in his White House blog:

“The overall trajectory of the economy has improved dramatically over the past two years, but there will surely be bumps in the road ahead. The monthly employment and unemployment numbers are volatile and employment estimates are subject to substantial revision. Therefore, as the administration always stresses, it is important not to read too much into any one monthly report.”

Nonetheless there is a lot of cheering going on. A glimmer of hope. A long simmering stew about to boil. Perhaps.

But I don’t buy it and you shouldn’t either. Here is why: We are entering the Federal World of Less. The government’s policy is one of contraction, not expansion. Government spending at all levels — federal, state, city and tribal — will be less in the coming years, not more. And with that the sorry prospect that hundreds of thousands of government workers — again at all levels — will soon lose their jobs.

That process is already underway. The February jobs report shows a loss of 30,000 government sector workers. That’s the biggest number in a year, and in a trend that’s just beginning. Remember at all levels of government, none of the really draconian budget cuts have yet to hit. We are still arguing over how big the cuts in government will be.

More important: The federal government does not even have a budget at this point — so any cuts will be magnified by the short number of weeks left between now and October 1. Most of government is people, in one form or another, so that’s where most of the impact will be.

I recently saw a government grant that put this in perspective. It made the award, congratulated the recipient, then added, the money was contingent on this year’s appropriations from Congress. Yeah, right.

Of course the federal policy of contraction will have even more impact on Indian Country. The Minneapolis Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank reported a few years ago (the lack of data about Indian country economics is another, huge frustration) that “over a third of jobs” from that region’s Indian reservations were government jobs, compared to about 15 percent of the country as a whole. The on-reservation private sector jobs were 44 percent, compared to nearly 80 percent for the nation as a whole.

Even the private sector in Indian Country will be impacted by this policy of contraction because new construction contracts for federal jobs will likely pay workers less (at least that’s what many in the Republican leadership propose).

A contracting government sector will have far more immediate and serious consequences for those living in Indian Country. This is what, a year or two from now, some smart government economist will call an “unintended consequence.” Well here is notice: This will not be an unintended consequence; it will have real impact on thousands of families across the country who work for federal or tribal governments. These are the folks (in larger society who would be called the middle-class) who pay taxes, buy houses and cars, and generally offer financial stability in communities where that’s too often in short supply.

There ought to be a strategy developed both by tribal leaders and from those in Congress so eager to cut every federal dollar about how to cushion the impact of these job losses. What about creating a special jobs mitigation fund? Or some other vehicle to help build an alternative? It’s true that Indian Country has needed more jobs for a long time. But undermining the one sector where jobs are steady will lead to an even worse economic disaster.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard. Chart source for this commentary is found here.

 


It’s the most important week of lobbying for tribes in decades

This week represents, perhaps, the most important week of lobbying for tribal nations since the end of the termination era. At a variety of meetings in Washington, D.C., including the National Congress of American Indians, leaders from Indian Country will fan out across Capitol Hill and make the case to Congress against deep spending cuts.

A new published summary of the White House Tribal Nations Conference makes that point from tribes several times over.

“Indian programs should be exempt from mandatory spending cuts,” the report says. “In particular, the Indian Health Service programs should not be reduced.”

On health care, the White House report reflected that idea as well.

“Recognizing that  American Indians and Alaska Natives die from many illnesses at far higher rates than the rest of the population, the President stated that closing the gaps in  health disparities is ‘not just a question of policy, it’s a question of our values, it’s a test of who we are as a nation.’  To help achieve this goal,  in 2010  the President signed into law  the Affordable Care Act, which  will make quality health insurance affordable to all Americans and permanently reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.”

In December when the White House conference took place there was a recognition that the new Congress was going to be changing all sorts of things. But what wasn’t known is that the rules of how Congress would act changed dramatically. The center of power shifted away from committee chairman, and especially appropriations sub-committees, to a smaller group in leadership.

It now looks like there will be a little time for tribal leaders to make another pitch to Congress. At least a couple of weeks. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — who has extraordinary authority on spending proposals for the House — said on CBS’s “Face The Nation” that it’s not likely the government will shut down March 4. “My guess is we will probably have a short-term extension while we negotiate these things with spending cuts,” he said. The House wants some $60 billion in program cuts for the rest of this year and significant spending reductions next year.

Already the House in its budget proposed a $1.3 billion reduction in spending for community health centers. This would impact some 11 million people — and a growing number of community health clinics serving American Indians in cities and in reservation communities, such as Utah Navajo Health Systems in Blanding, Utah. This is important because it shows that protecting Indian Health Service from budget cuts is not enough. If there are other health program cuts, such as support for clinics, it will put successful Native American operations at risk.

“Health centers provide cost-effective care for high-risk patients,” said Peter Shin of George Washington University, School of Public Health and Health Services. “Reducing health center funding impedes improvements in population health and limits the potential for significant savings in health care costs.”

Shin is co-author of a new policy brief, “Who Are the Health Center Patients Who Risk Losing Care Under the House of Representatives’ Proposed FY 2011 Spending Reductions.

One of the problems with this type of spending cut is that it won’t save any money. It will probably cost more. When people go to a clinic the costs are controlled; on other hand, when a clinic setting is not available, then people go to the Emergency Room, a far costlier alternative.

Beyond Congress (which to me looks bleak), I would hope the administration does everything it can to make it easier for tribes to weather the current congressional atmosphere. For example: One of the proposals made at the White House session is a good one: “Federal funding should be delivered directly to Indian tribes or tribal consortia without interference from the states.  Problems arise when federal funds flow through states to Indian tribes.”

On March 3 the White House will again meet with tribal leaders to follow up on issues raised at the December Tribal Nations Conference. I hope there’s a lot of thinking about how much can be done without Congress. What if more federal rules were rewritten by inserting two words, “and tribes,” after any document that outlines programs for states? This notion is especially important to spending programs that are automatic such as Medicaid. (Instead of an appropriation, Medicaid is automatic. The money is there is a person is eligible.)

Remember this is a test of our nation’s values.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

 

 

What is ‘Plan B’ for tribes during a federal government shutdown?

Is there a Plan B?

That is the question tribes, Indian organizations and government agencies should be asking — and answering because it looks more and more likely there will be a federal government shutdown early next month.

Why is this a concern now? Congress did not pass a budget for this fiscal year. Instead, the government is operating on a temporary spending law called a Continuing Resolution, an authorization that expires March 4.  That measure essentially allows the government to spend money based on the prior year’s budget. But Republicans want deep budget cuts. So last week the House passed a Continuing Resolution that would last the rest of the year, but cutting some $60 billion from this year’s spending.

“It is my intent – and that of my Committee – that this CR legislation will be the first of many appropriations bills this year that will significantly reduce federal spending,” Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, pictured at left, said in a news release. “It is important that we complete the legislative process on this bill before March 4th — when the current funding measure expires – to avoid a government-wide shutdown and so that we can begin our regular budgetary work for this year.”

March 4 represents a huge game of chicken. (However there may be a few accounting tricks ahead that would keep the government operating beyond March 4.) But this game is far from a sport because the only certain loser is Americans across the country who rely on the federal government.

That, ironically, includes Rogers own district. On his web site, he says, he represents “the one of the poorest Congressional Districts in the nation.” So he “works tirelessly to bring jobs, better education, and greater opportunities to the hardworking families living in his district. His vision for a stronger Appalachia spurred some of the greatest success stories in southern and eastern Kentucky.  Organizations such as PRIDE, Operation UNITE, Southeast Kentucky Economic Development (SKED), and TOUR Southern and Eastern Kentucky (TOUR SEKY) have brought local communities together by revitalizing the environment, providing hope in the fight against drugs, building small businesses, and creating jobs by increasing tourism in one of the most beautiful regions of the country.”

Indeed, the zeal to cut the budget is a new charge for Rogers who was once known as a “prince of pork.” The Kentucky Commonwealth Journal reported that Rogers was in the top 10 of U.S. Members in terms of earmark spending. (Rogers says no more earmarks, even for his favorite programs.)

The House, of course, is only one-third of the federal budget process. The Senate and President Barack Obama must also agree on a spending plan. But the rub is that any spending plan requires a “yes” from all three. Any one player can say no. The president has already threatened to veto House bill 1, should it get past the Senate.

So the game of chicken continues with the growing likelihood of a government shutdown.

So what will a closed federal government look like? History gives us a clue. There was a 21-day shutdown that started on December 16, 1995, and continued to January 6, 1996. According to the Congressional Research Service, All 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees were furloughed; general assistance payments for basic needs to 53,000 BIA benefit recipients were delayed; and estimated 25,000 American Indians did not receive timely payment of oil and gas royalties.”

And at the Indian Health Service, former IHS director Dr. Michael Trujillo told Congress that the government closure “caused considerable hardship within Indian communities. One result of staff furloughs was difficulty in processing funds for direct services and to contracting and compacting tribes so the delivery of health services could continue. Those staff that continued providing health services were not paid on time. Threats to shut off utilities to our health facilities and even to stop food deliveries were endured. We reached a point where some private sector providers indicated that they might not accept patients who were referred from Indian Health facilities because of the Federal shutdown.”

Still, Trujillo said:

“I am proud to say that not one tribal program or compacting tribe considered, much less voiced, halting the delivery of care. There were some urban programs that were faced with closing because they had exhausted their resources. By working closely with the IHS they were able to remain open. I believe that we stood together with confidence in one another, and with faith in the strength of the treaties Indian governments have with the government of the United States, and that it is because of our faith that we came through and continued to provide services for Indian people.”

Will that faith come through again? That all depends on how long and difficult the government shutdown is this time around. How long will it last? (Once, say Social Security checks are missed then the political pressure to fix the problem will grow intense.) And do tribes have the resources to provide stop-gap funding if the federal government comes up short? Back to the question I raised earlier: Is there a Plan B?

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

Budgets are full of spite, not promise

COMMENTARY

The coming year’s proposed federal budget is a lost cause. Mostly.

The budget that will finally emerge from Congress is going to be ugly. A zealous sense of frugality will consume most federal Indian programs, agencies that serve rural communities, and many others that serve important constituent groups in the United States.

At their best: Budgets reflect priorities. They identify the choices ahead and quantify what’s important to a society. So what does the United States care about in its budget messages, both from the president and from the Congress?

 At the top of the list, the single most important priority, is the promises made to those older than 65 years. Neither the president nor Congress is suggesting any major — or even minor — changes to the entitlements found in Medicare and Medicaid. (Not yet, anyway.)

 But if Medicaid and Medicare represent the promises made to our elders, what about the other promises that were so solemnly made?

 Well, here is one good piece of news: the president’s budget protects the Indian health system. “The FY 2012 Budget requests $5.7 billion for the Indian Health Service (IHS), an increase of $589 million over FY 2010.  The Budget prioritizes reducing health disparities in Indian Country and improving the Indian health system.  This expansion is a continuation of the administration’s policy to work toward fulfillment of the federal government’s obligations to American Indians and Alaska Natives,” says the budget request from the Health and Human Services Department. Even more important the IHS seeks an increase in contract health care — funding patients through outside vendors — as well as more money for supporting tribal government contracts of IHS programs.

 If the president can hold this one budget line, I think Indian country will be a winner in the coming budget debate. This is awfully important because the IHS has been so underfunded for so long (and even this budget does not close the remaining gap of what should be spent.)

 The budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs won’t make many tribal leaders happy, but it’s not as bad as it could be. (Such a ringing endorsement, I know.) The agency would have to take a

 President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2012 budget request for the Interior Department’s Indian Affairs programs is $2.5 billion – a $118.9 million decrease from the FY 2010 Enacted/FY 2011 Continuing Resolution levels.  Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk said the budget protects the heart of the mission to serve American Indian and Alaska Natives.  “By making these tough choices now, we can continue to make the vital investments needed to sustain economic growth and recovery in Indian Country while maintaining our core functions,” Echo Hawk said.

 But the president’s budget is the best possible case — and even then it’s what he terms “painful.”

 The problem is that Republicans (and the Tea Party crowd) are almost giddy with their budget alternatives. It’s as if the pain that will be caused in the months ahead brings them joy. There is a spite factor at work that is undeniable. This part of the budget, the domestic discretionary budget, is such a tiny slice of federal spending. Yet all of the action, the demand to “stop federal spending,” focuses on those programs that impact the poorest people in the nation.

 That’s why I say this budget is a lost cause. From here on out the numbers will only get worse as the Congress cuts away. Already Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the president’s budget as irresponsible. “This is not an ‘I got the message’ budget,” he said.

 What can Indian Country do about this budget? Not much. Tribes can make the case to true conservatives that funding American Indian programs is a constitutional and sacred act. But that won’t erase the spite factor. The only antidote to that awful notion is turning out every tribal member and friend to Indian Country and winning the next election.

 

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

Medicaid twists the nullification debate

COMMENTARY

The Idaho Legislature is considering a bill that would make it illegal to implement the Affordable Care Act in Idaho, the so-called “nullification” approach. The idea is that states can dismiss any federal law that they don’t like. And Idaho (and several other states) really don’t like health care reform. However most constitutional scholars dismiss the theory – even Idaho’s attorney general said states cannot pick and choose which federal laws to follow.

 Nullification is an issue because it generates lots of bluster. It allows legislatures to complain loudly – all the while ignoring their real power over federal health care. You see: Legislatures could trump the federal government over Medicaid. But that would mean making real voters, constituents about as angry as can be.

 Medicaid is a partnership between the United States and the state governments. It is a voluntary program. A state could pull out and not participate, passing on the federal matching dollars that pay for most of the program.

 The story of Medicaid as told in the media is largely about pregnant women, the poor and disabled. Every time a state tries to save money by reducing services (right now they are not supposed to restrict eligibility) then that narrative is unleashed. This lede from Bloomberg captures is a great example: “The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is poised to make more than $8 million in cuts to Medicaid programs and services for low-income adults with severe mental illness and children with autism and other developmental disabilities.”

 If Medicaid was primarily a program for the poor and disabled states probably would give it up. But that narrative misses the complexity. Much of Medicaid pays for long-term care of the elderly. Medicaid represents 40 percent of all nursing home spending, according to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. And what’ more: Even during this time of economic hardship, states have been expanding this line of spending.

 That’s why some legislators would rather push for nullification. They are mad at how much Medicaid costs state budgets; resulting in a shortage of at least $125 billion in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Last week Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote a letter to governors that said her agency will help “identify cost drivers in the Medicaid program and provide you with new tools and resources to achieve both short-term savings and longer-term sustainability while providing high-quality care to the citizens of your states.”

 One of those drivers – and potential savings for states – ought to be the Indian health system. First, remember that Medicaid (and a Children’s Health Insurance Program) is an entitlement, and not an appropriation. That means the money is there for any eligible person. This is money that can expand services for every patient in the Indian health system. Second, and critical for states, the federal government gives a 100 percent match for clients in the Indian health system. It ought to be in states’ interest to enroll as many American Indians and Alaska Natives and spend as much as possible on reimbursable care.

 But states have an illogical role in this system. Even the states that embrace this role have to navigate an extraordinarily complicated maze of rules and regulations. What happens, for example, when a young person moves from a reservation community to Haskell or another school? A study by Spokane’s Kauffman and Associates found that to be a logistical “nightmare.” The young people should have remained eligible but were rejected because they were not considered a resident of the state where the school was located. There are many, many more complications in the complicated dance between Medicaid, state governments, tribes and the Indian health system.

 One of the most promising ideas in the Affordable Care Act is a feasibility study to treat Navajo as a 51st state. It seems to me this is an experiment that could be expanded, treating Indian Country as a 51st state with direct funding from Washington. It would save money because the reimbursement rate would not change – yet it would streamline all of the separate sets of Medicaid rules written by state governments. And in this climate of state budget shortages, perhaps, states would be willing, no eager, to send this role back to the federal government.

 Call this a new spin on nullification.

 

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.