Writings and observations

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

We just watched the end of The Old School Congress. 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 consequences.

Arizona’s Rio Tinto mine giveaway is a case in point. Actual legislation to support an Australian mining company never found support; 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 good deal? But tucking into a Defense Authorization bill? Old school.

It’s a similar story for Sealaska and lands that were part of a promise under 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.

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 ends. 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.

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. 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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Trahant

news

Here’s what public affairs news made the front page of newspapers in the Northwest today, excluding local crime, features and sports stories. (Newspaper names contracted with location)

Boise discusses southwest annexation (Boise Statesman)
State may sell 607 acres at Nampa (Boise Statesman, Nampa Press Tribune)
New Cathollic bishop Christensen installed (Boise Statesman)
LDS temple at IF shuttered 18 months for renovation (IF Post Register)
Pocatello regional postal center shuts in April (IF Post Register)
Inslee proposes carbon tax paying for transit (Lewiston Tribune)
Poll says Washingtonians back WSU med school (Moscow News)
Nampa sued by former public works official (Nampa Press Tribune)
Pocatello cows remain at large (Pocatello Journal)
ON Semiconductor manager leaves for Phoenix (Pocatello Journal)
Urban village gets okay from TF council (TF Times News)
Cassia seeks $37m school bond (TF Times News)

Piercy won’t seek another mayoral term (Eugene Register Guard)
Lane Transit District may go after police powers (Eugene Register Guard)
Klamath city, county may merge planning services (KF Herald & News)
New manager for Bureau of Reclamation named (KF Herald & News)
Umatilla port, city confer over land case (Pendleton E Oregonian)
Coming battle over pot taxation by cities (Pendleton E Oregonian)
Looking at Oregon’s system dealing with addiction (Portland Oregonian)
Record number jobs in Oregon; many still out (Salem Statesman Journal)

Inslee transport plan would include carbon tax (Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Vancouver Columbian, Yakima Herald Republic, Bremerton Sun, Olympian, Longview News)
Suquamish consider allowing pot (Bremerton Sun)
New Kitsap prosecutor looking to bring changes (Bremerton Sun)
Experienced school bus drivers hard to find (Longview News)
Lewison Co may not endorced I-594/gun checks (Longview News)
Olympia port pays $187k in records case (Olympian)
Pollutants found near former Payonier site (Port Angeles News)
Health ratings for restaurants, etc drop (Seattle Times)
Spokane encourages use of apprentices in projects (Spokane Spokesman)
Drivers using up gasolline glut (Tacoma News Tribune)
Plan to block department mergers in Clark fails (Vancouver Columbian)
Mixed reaction to education budget (Vancouver Columbian)
Tree Top fruits CEO retiring (Yakima Herald Republic)

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