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Posts published in “Day: January 23, 2018”

Character matters


My senior year of high school, I served as a page for the Idaho House of Representatives. I was also a member of the Lewiston High School chapter of the National Honor Society. The NHS recognizes scholarship, service, leadership, and character, and four graduating seniors were tapped to address these topics at the year’s end initiation ceremony. I was assigned to speak on character.

In preparing my remarks, I took advantage of my access to key legislators in Boise and interviewed several leaders from both parties to elicit their views on the importance of character in the legislative process.

The interview I most remember is the one I had with Sen. Richard (Dick) High who represented a district in Twin Falls and later served with distinction on the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Sen. High, a Republican, was universally respected by his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle.

“What role does character play in legislative success?” I asked the senator.

“Character makes all the difference,” he replied. “A man’s word is his bond. If you give your word and break your word, you are finished here.”

Sen. High went on to explain why trust, once broken, is so very hard to regain. He acknowledged that legislators will occasionally have good reason to change their minds but, when they do, they should give their reasons and inform those to whom they earlier made a commitment. He emphasized that anything less would be dishonorable.

I incorporated Sen. High’s comments, with attribution of course, into my speech on character, noting that the cornerstone of character is honesty, fair dealing, and keeping one’s word.

Last weekend as negotiations to keep the government open spiraled downward, I was again reminded of the importance of trust among players in the legislative process and the age-old truth that the ability to rely on one’s word is critical, that trust, once broken, is very hard to regain.

President Trump promised to sign DACA legislation that had garnered bipartisan support. He promised to “take the heat.” He promised not to second guess the senators. He promised not to require changes. And, then – in the blink of any eye – he broke each and every promise.

When Senators Graham and Durbin, a Republican and Democrat, met with the president to present their agreed upon proposal, Trump flipped and he flopped – and he broke his word.

In the aftermath of Trump’s abrupt reversal, Mitch McConnell tried mightily to pin the blame for the ensuing government shutdown on the Democrats, but try as he might, his words rang hollow.

Senator Schumer, observing that negotiating with the president was like negotiating with Jello, directly called-out the elephant in the room. Schumer said, in no uncertain terms, that the president had reneged on his promise. Schumer made clear his view, based on experience, that the occupant of the Oval Office could not be trusted.

While Schumer spoke, McConnell maintained his game face, keeping up the pretense that the president was blameless. But McConnell knew better. Just the previous day, McConnell himself had publicly complained that he felt paralyzed in moving forward not knowing what legislation the president would accept. McConnell knew that his GOP caucus, no less than Schumer’s Democrats, could not rely on the president to keep his word.

It seems that Trump has stiffed employees, contractors and others his entire adult life. His businesses have seen repeated bankruptcies. American banks so devalued his credit that he couldn’t get a loan, so he turned to Russian banks to bail him out.

Always, it seems, he moved on.

But he is beginning to find out that, as president, there is no moving on. There is no other Congress to which he can turn. Neither party trusts him, though the Republicans will pretend they do. But at the end of the day, his credit is worthless.

Dick High was right. And character still matters.

A Congress that cannot govern


This federal shutdown fight has been brewing for years. And it's complicated because there are several different Congressional factions; think of them as mini-political parties, that have different goals in the budget process.

Remember this: The Republicans are in charge. This process could have been resolved within the caucus -- if the GOP leadership had the votes. And that's the main problem. There is not enough votes for an affirmative solution. So much easier to say "no." (The House did pass their version with the support of the so-called Freedom Caucus. But several Senators in the Republican camp are still not on board because the solution doesn't send enough money to the military while others are not happy with another Continuing Resolution or any additional spending.

Democrats have not had much say in the government since the election of Donald J. Trump as president. Senate leaders have used budget rules designed to pass legislation with 51 votes. But this short-term spending bill does not qualify. So for once, Democrats have a say. There are three things on their "must" list. They want domestic spending protected (remember, one GOP faction wants deep cuts into government spending). They have been successful doing this with every Continuing Resolution so far because the alternative is the Budget Control Act and that would require deep cuts to the military (as well as domestic programs). Democrats also want funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program or CHIP. That is a huge program for Indian Country (along with Medicaid) pays the health care costs for more than half of all American Indian and Alaska Native children in the Indian health care system.

The CHIP program is in the House Continuing Resolution. But, as the National Indian Health Board posted yesterday, the House bill "does contain a 6-year reauthorization for the Children's Health Insurance Program but does not include the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. This is a huge miss. The Special Diabetes for Program for Indians expires March 31. The ideal solution would be for the Senate to include both CHIP and the diabetes program in any deal that's made with the White House.

The final sticking point for the Democrats is protecting the people who brought to this country as children. The Trump administration wants a solution to include money for a wall -- even full funding for that project -- as well as an increase in enforcement. Tough sell.

But as I mentioned all of this has been brewing. Instead of having a full debate about these divisions, Congress has been saying it will deal with it later. This is later. (And even then don't be surprised if a deal just moves this down the road.)

Ideally this will force the Congress into a real debate. Big picture stuff. Yeah, right. I know, but I had to write it anyway.

Of course Indian Country (and the economy) will be hit hard if this shutdown lasts very long. Lots of families, both government employees and contractors, could lose a paycheck.

The problem is we really don't know exactly how the Trump administration will manage this particular closure.

During the last government shutdown, 21-days that started on December 16, 1995, and continued to January 6, 1996, all 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs 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," according to the Congressional Research Service. The last time around furloughed employees were eventually paid. Eventually.

All told Standard & Poor's estimated the U.S. economy lost $24 billion last time around.

The Indian Health Service and the Department of Interior posted planning memos in September about what is expected to happen. Basically: Many BIA employees will be furloughed, except for those that work in public safety or who are managers. However the Bureau of Indian Education will largely continue working, especially those who work with schools and children.

Former Indian Health Service Director 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.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports