Tribes, Obama meeting under shadow of hard times

The president hosts the White House Tribal Nations Conference in the middle of government contraction.

Crosscut archive image.

President Obama campaigned in Crow Country as a candidate.

The president hosts the White House Tribal Nations Conference in the middle of government contraction.

Last December, hundreds of American Indian and Alaska Native leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. for the second White House Tribal Nations Conference.

I wrote at the time: “When President Obama reached the podium at the Interior Department last week nearly every person in a seat lifted a cell phone to take a picture. Row after row of glowing screens captured that moment. But that photo-op is no longer enough. A year ago it was a big deal to meet. But a year from now it will only be a big deal if there are success stories that add jobs, improve the health or educational opportunities for young Native Americans.”

Here we go again. Tribal leaders are in Washington this week for a variety of meetings including the White House Tribal Nations Conference, which the president hosts on Friday (Dec. 2).

But the Big Deal is not there. There are fewer success stories in Indian Country than a year ago. We can’t point out new jobs, a better health care system or increased educational opportunities. In fact, as the federal budget crunch hits, all of these indicators will trend worse.

But President Obama is not the problem. The real Big Deal is that Washington is going through a government-wide transformation and the president has limited power to either shape or stop the radical redesign of all-things-federal. But the president is not alone. The Republicans in Congress also have limits. As do the Democrats. That means there is no clarity in how to proceed — and the debate goes on and on without resolution.

But the policy of contraction — the shrinking of the federal government — is set to occur no matter what.

The failure of the supercommittee requires automatic budget cuts to begin in 2013. There will be no room for discussion about which programs work (or don’t) because the budget will be slashed by blind percentages. (The only plus: At least it’s a year away.)

This month Congress will fight over a temporary budget. One of those limits of power: Neither side has the votes to enact a traditional budget. So the government is funded by a Continuing Resolution, one that expires Dec. 16. Congress will have to vote to extend that date or shut down the government. Again.

A great example of the deep divide is the impact of government spending. Republicans have been saying for months that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 did not work because we still have high unemployment. But the Congressional Budget Office released estimates that counter that claim. CBO said unemployment was at least .2 to as much as 1.3 percent lower because of the stimulus funding. It also said the federal spending was a net positive addition to the economy. (A study last year by the National Congress of American Indians highlighted nine examples of how the act worked in Indian Country.) But the data won’t change any minds. Those that believe government is essentially evil will continue to press for less.

Taxes will continue to be another dividing line — especially over the next few days and weeks. The Bush income tax cuts expire at the end of the year unless Congress does something to extend those rates. By the same measure, payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits must be extended by the end of the year. Most of us pay more in payroll taxes than we do in income taxes. The Republicans tend to favor income tax cuts and Democrats will back extending payroll tax cuts and longer unemployment benefits. This is important because neither side has the votes to do anything on its own. So the likely choice is both or none.

Ideally, both in the Congress and at the White House meeting, there will be a transition plan put into place for Indian Country before the 2013 budget cuts. That plan could include flexibility in how federal dollars are spent, transition funding to make the coming cuts less painful, or perhaps, even, trying a few new ideas.

Then, a year from now there might not be new Indian Country success stories to swap. But at least there will have been an effort to prevent tragedy.


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