Writings and observations

mendiola MARK


President Obama must wield his authority to minimize the harm inflicted by the looming $85 billion in federal “sequestration” budget cuts set to take effect on Friday, March 1, Idaho U.S. Sen. Jim Risch said Monday night, Feb. 25, during a “Tele-Town Hall” meeting.

“I hope the president of the United States who is in charge of implementing the cuts and whose idea it was will do so reasonably,” Risch said. “The president has the ability to move those cuts around and make them as painless as possible. I hope he does that.”

Recently ranked by the National Journal as the most conservative U.S. senator in Congress, Risch said the nation’s financial condition is the most prominent issue confronting Washington and all states.

“If you think it’s pretty bad, the bad news is you wouldn’t be exactly correct. It’s much worse than what every American knows,” the former Idaho governor said. “The facts of where we are right now are not debatable.”

The federal government has been spending $3.8 trillion annually for the past four or five years – or about $11 billion a day. “Unfortunately, on average, the federal government only takes in $6.5 billion a day. … The federal government borrows a little over $4 billion every single day just to meet its bills that night.”

Contrary to what is commonly believed, the government is borrowing the money to pay the difference, primarily from China, not printing it. The U.S. Treasury used to borrow once a month to pay its bills, then once a week. After the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was enacted as a $787 billion economic stimulus, borrowing had to be done on a daily basis. Now, it’s done multiple times a day, he said.

Treasury tells the Bureau of Public Debt how much to borrow. “We also borrow between $50 billion to $70 billion a day to refinance the debt.” If the $6.5 billion in daily revenue were spent on priorities, it would only pay for Social Security, Medicare and the interest on the national debt, but nothing on defense, education, agriculture, parks or anything else, Risch said.

“This also helps underscore how difficult the situation is and how badly the government is pinched,” he said. “The bad news is there’s nothing in play right now to turn this around or change this.”

Congress and the White House have kicked the can down the road by passing legislation every 90 days to keep the government running. The debt ceiling is hit every six months. When Risch took his Senate office in 2009, the national debt was $10 trillion. It now stands at more than $16 trillion.

When the debt ceiling was hit last August, a “Super Committee” was created to find up to $1.6 trillion in spending cuts. When committee members were not able to reach agreement, automatic spending or “sequester” cuts were set to take effect on March 1, after November’s presidential election.

Entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare are exempted from the sequester cuts, which will come entirely from discretionary spending programs, which comprise 40 percent of the total federal budget.

“There has been a lot of talk and misinformation and fear mongering” about the impact sequestration will have on the nation, Risch said, noting that when he served in the Idaho Legislature, the governor had the authority to make holdbacks in times of financial setbacks. He would work with legislators to ensure crucial programs were spared.

“We all worked together to make it as painless as possible for Idahoans,” Risch said. “We worked together to make it work in the best interest of the people.”

When asked by a man in Buhl why senators don’t just go home and let others work on passing a budget after four years of not enacting one, Risch responded by saying only the majority party can bring a budget forward, and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to do so.

“We have urged him over and over to do it,” Risch said, referring to his Republican colleagues. “I’m absolutely and totally astounded Congress will not follow the law or adopt a budget. It astounds me that an institution that spends $3.8 trillion does so without a budget. I’m outraged by it, and most Americans are.”

When a woman from Grangeville expressed concerns about the Federal Aviation Administration threatening to close airport control towers in Lewiston, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and Pocatello, Risch said the FAA’s budget under sequestration would be rolled back to its levels four years ago.

“In 2009, the FAA was able to operate all of those towers without any difficulty at all,” he said. “One of the things that astounded me when I got to Washington D.C. was how archaic and cumbersome the process is. … It’s incredibly frustrating to deal with a system like that.”

Risch said it’s ridiculous to project budgets 10 years out so cuts are targeted for the eighth, ninth and 10th years, not immediately. Since 2000, the federal government has virtually doubled in number of employees and money spent, he said.

It is up to the executive branch of government to execute the budget and appropriations enacted by the legislative branch. “It will be up to President Obama and his administration that executes the holdback,” Risch said, adding the list of cuts put out by the White House appears painful and punitive. “You can’t help but get the feeling, it’s all political.”

Risch warned the United States is heading toward a financial catastrophe like Greece if exorbitant spending continues unabated. “In some cases, our credit card has a higher limit than Greece’s does,” he said, lamenting the predominant cavalier attitude toward spending in Washington.

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Idaho Mendiola

trahant MARK


The sequester begins in four days and Congress is set on a do nothing course.

Not that anyone is happy about it.

The White House over the weekend released a state-by-state list of impacts. (I wish a similar sheet had been released for the impact on tribal governments.) For example: “Alaska would lose about $1.8 million environmental funding to ensure clean water and air quality, as well as prevent pollution from pesticides and hazardous waste,” the White House said. Another program that will lose money there is the Nutrition Assistance for Seniors, some $184,000.

Elderly lunches are big in Indian Country, both on reservations, across Alaska and in urban Indian centers. The White House says that sequester will mean 4 million fewer meals this year. “These meals contribute to the overall health and well-being of participating seniors, including those with chronic illnesses that are affected by diet, such as diabetes and heart
disease, and frail seniors who are homebound,” the White House said. “The meals can account for 50 percent or more of daily food for the majority of participants.”

All week we will be hearing about the impact of these cuts on real programs and real people. Especially federal employees and contractors whose family budgets will be cut by furloughs and other means.

But what about the politics?

President Barack Obama says these cuts will be required by law and the impacts are real. He has his own plan to avoid them.

Republicans, generally, are continuing to blame President Barack Obama for the sequester, saying it was his idea. But that’s a bit complicated because Republicans then voted for the plan. And, more important, both sides said that sequester would never happen. But the Congress is so broken that there is no hope of a deal at this point. Neither Speaker of the House John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have the votes to enact a budget or a real relief to the sequester act that nearly everyone calls a stupid way to govern.

The House passed a repeal of Obamacare more than thirty times so a simple repeal of the Budget Control Act seems like it would be easy. But the truth is that many conservatives would not vote for a repeal of the sequester. They see this as the first step toward real austerity. As Boehner put it in his blog: “Government spending is the problem. No one should be talking about raising taxes when the FAA spends $500 million a year on consultants; the EPA has sent more than $100 million in grants to foreign countries; the IRS has a $4 million-a-year TV studio; and more.”

The National Review’s Rich Lowry goes further. He writes: “It’s hard to see how a cut of a little more than $40 billion this year can possibly tank a $16 trillion economy. Or why keeping the deficit the same as it is projected to be this year, at about $845 billion with the sequester cuts already accounted for, will be a shock too severe for the economy to take.”

So here we go. Sequester. Now, the nearest thing to a “plan” is to begin the sequester on Friday, see how much chaos surfaces, and then shoot for a fix at the end of the month when the federal spending bill, the Continuing Resolution, expires. But that said: If there remains as much distance between Republicans and Democrats as there is now, then government will shut down.

Democrats in the House and Senate have their own plan, of course. The plan would stop the sequester and still cut the budget (along with increasing tax revenues). It has everything going for it … except enough votes to pass. (Unless – and this is a long shot – there are enough Republican votes in the House to force what is called a “discharge petition” that goes around leadership and allows a direct vote on the plan.)

So for now, beginning Friday, the budget cuts are set on automatic pilot by a Congress that lacks the votes to do much of anything about it. But that’s only the beginning. Plan on a chaotic month ahead.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at:

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DERELICT A 30′ non-motorized boat was removed from the ocean shore near Horsfall Beach north of Coos Bay February 21. Contractor Johnson Rock of Coos Bay transported it to Les Sanitation in Coos Bay. Removing the debris cost the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department $2,500. (photo/Oregon Parks & Recreation Department)


Legislative action was prominent in all three states last week – and likely will be again this week, in the three Northwest Briefings.

Meanwhile, winter continues apace, in this case driving an old board ashore on the south-central Oregon coast.

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OREGON GUNS Legislation as introduced, whether in a state legislature or in Congress, is a work in progress. If it does get passed – and most doesn’t – it often doesn’t look exactly the same by the time it reaches the executive for signature. That’s why critics of the Oregon gun bill (House Bill 3200) proposed by Representative Mitch Greenlick are both correct to weigh in on its problems and overreach, but would be wrong to worry about it overmuch. It does overreach by prospectively allowing for searches and investigations of gun storage; even Greenlick acknowledges as much. It was introduced as a starting point for discussion, and if the bill eventually does move, it likely would be in a much reduced form. Same thing goes for the Washington state Senate Bill 5737, also containing provisions that would be widely seen as excessive (as noted in a recent column by Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times).

BOISE/ACHD SQUABBLE A minor tempest? Some harsh back-and-forth between the city of Boise (most principally involving Mayor David Bieter) and officials at the Ada County Highway District has gone fully public, after distribution (apparently by Bieter) of an anonymously-written piece questioning whether the ACHD should exist. Will the squabble continue? Maybe it will ease back. Bieter seems to be easing off on his side, saying the paper was a “working document” not intended for wider distribution, though he said some of the complaints have been around a while. This could still go in any of several directions.

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