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Posts published in “Trahant”

Candidate Rossi, again


Dino Rossi has an interesting political legacy. He was for several weeks the Gov.-elect for Washington state. Then after much counting (and recounting) Democrat Christine Gregoire took the lead by 129 votes and was she sworn in as governor on January 12, 2005.

Since then Rossi has run for governor again, the U.S. Senate, and was recently appointed to a state Senate seat to fill out the remaining term of a member who had died.

Rossi is Tlingit. One of his first jobs was working for Bernie Whitebear at Seattle's United Indians for All.

It's interesting how some candidates make their tribal affiliation prominent and weigh in on issues that impact Indian Country. That would not be Rossi. But he doesn't shy away (as many politicians do) from the conversation. It's just not his focus. He has a fascinating background. From his transition team biography: "Dino’s mother, Eve, came from Alaska. She was half Irish, half Tlingit Alaskan Native. She’d married in Alaska and had five children, but the marriage became difficult. To get away from the situation, Eve took her kids to Seattle. For a time the family lived in public housing in Holly Park while Eve waitressed during the day and went to beauty school at night." His mother met and married John Rossi and the family eventually moved to Mountlake Terrace. Back to the bio: "The Rossi kids were raised on a school-teacher’s salary. They didn’t have a lot of money, but their house was full of love."

If you read his story, you'd think it was a classic liberal narrative. Public housing. Government works. But no. Rossi favors the bootstrap side of the story, a working family that raised itself up. He has always run as a conservative candidate. That said. In his Senate role he was willing to reach across party lines and come up with a deal.

I remember a Seattle P-I Editorial Board with then Sen. Rossi where he talked about the shortage of funds for higher education. But then, he suggested, book as much spending as possible on the capital side of the ledger. That's where serious dollars could be found, he suggested. Creative.

Or as his bio puts it: "In the state Senate, Dino became a leader on budget issues. He eventually became Chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee – which writes the state budget – in 2003, when the State faced the largest dollar deficit in history. Dino was able to work across party lines and balance the budget without raising taxes and while still protecting the most vulnerable. Dino also focused on other issues: he spearheaded legislation to punish drunk drivers and child abusers; he worked to fund the Issaquah salmon hatchery; he secured funding for Hispanic/Latino health clinics, and he championed funding for the developmentally disabled community."

Washington's 8th District poses a lot of the same challenges that Rossi faced when he ran for governor; the demographics of the district (like the state) are more more diverse and liberal than a few years ago. But he enters this race with one advantage: He will be the only Republican while there will be a half-dozen Democrats. Washington has a top-two primary, but the winning Democrat will have to build name ID and consolidate support, something Rossi will already have with Republicans.

The seat is now held by Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican.

There are now seven #NativeVote18 candidates for Congress. Three Republicans, Rossi as well as Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin. And four Democrats, Carol Surveyor in Utah, Debra Haaland in New Mexico, J.D. Colbert in Texas, and Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols (who's challenging Mullin). So far.

One party? Get real


September is going to be a mess. Congress must sort out some really complicated fiscal issues. There is the budget, an increase in the debt limit, how much to spend on federal programs and services, and, if there’s time, tax reform.

This should be easy in a one-party government. Republicans only need to come up with a budget plan. Then the House acts, the Senate does its thing, and President Donald J. Trump signs the idea into law. Easy. Except there is no Republican majority in Congress (other than the R listed by members’ names.)

The House is made up of at least three factions, or parties, and no majority. (The three groups are: Republicans, Democrats, and the more conservative House Freedom Caucus.) So in order to gather enough votes to pass a budget, or any other of the challenges, at least two of the three factions have to agree on a plan.

The Senate has its own divisions within the Republican Party. (The very reason why a Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act has not yet become law.)

And the White House is not on the same page either. The president proposed a stingy budget that’s been pretty much rejected by members of the House and the Senate (except the more conservative elements such as the House Freedom Caucus.)

For example the Trump proposed budget calls for $4.7 billion for the Indian Health Service, a cut of some $300 million or 6 percent of the agency’s budget. But a House spending plan calls for an increase of $97 million over last year’s levels. Indeed, the Appropriations Committee that funds IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to spend a total of $4.3 billion more than the president requested on programs under its jurisdiction. (In general: The president’s budget reflects significant budget cuts across Indian Country, according to analysis by the National Congress of American Indians.)

The Senate will come up with its own spending plan. Then, in theory, the two houses will resolve their differences and agree on how much the federal government should spend next year (and the president can go along or veto the legislation and start all over).

But no. That’s not how Congress is actually legislating these days. More often Congress agrees to a temporary spending measure based on last year’s budget, a Continuing Resolution. That’s an easier sell to members even if it does represent a last minute, throw up your hands, and do something approach. The other alternative is a government shutdown. That could happen. President Trump tweeted in May that "our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!"

Yes, the budget is a mess. Period. Even take the word, “budget.” That’s a proposal from the president. But in Congress a “budget” is a spending limit that Congress imposes on itself. It sets a ceiling that each of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees have to live with. And, more important right now, the budget sets the rules for debate so the Senate can pass some legislation (such as the health care bill) with only 50 votes. (Most bills need 60 votes to stop a filibuster from stopping the process.)

Back to the congressional budget. Last month the Budget Committee approved a plan that would cut domestic spending by $2.9 trillion over the next decade. The full House will vote on this plan when it returns. It’s a bleak document that would end up slashing many of the programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives. Remember the appropriations committees would still figure out how to spend the money; but the budget would act as an overall cap. Less pie to divide.

This budget plan starts off with historically low federal spending that is compounded by even more severe budget cuts between now and 2027. To show how out of touch this budget is, it includes program cuts for Medicaid that were a part of the failed health care legislation. (What's changed? Nothing.) This bill tips action toward the conservatives who want deep spending cuts to be sooner, as in right now.

That makes the problem political. There are probably not enough votes to make this budget so. A few Republicans don’t see this harsh approach as good government. And even if the votes are found in the House, the Senate is another story. Think health care.

And if this budget cannot pass, it’s not likely there is another one that would. Democrats in the House say they want to spend more money: “Congress cannot continue to underfund these crucial investments … (and) without relief from these spending caps, vital government programs are facing significant cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would have significant effects on American families all across the country.”

And the budget is only one fiscal crisis. Another issue that is immediate and serious involves the debt limit. That’s the amount of money the federal government can borrow and it's currently set at $19.85 trillion (federal debt exceeds that level now, but the Secretary of Treasury can basically shuffle money from different accounts). Conservatives want spending cuts as part of any deal to increase the debt limit. As Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, told MSNBC. A debt limit increase without spending cuts is “like having a credit card and saying, ‘I've reached my limit, I'm just going to change the limit higher without changing any of my spending habits.’”

But, like on the budget issue, the votes are not there. (Especially in the Senate where 60 votes will be needed.)

This is tricky because the Republican administration understands what failure could do to the country. Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is now supporting a debt limit increase. But when he served in Congress, Mulvaney said he was willing to risk a default to force a discussion on spending.

Key point here: Votes from Democrats will be needed in both the House and the Senate to pass an increase in the debt limit. But will there be enough Republicans?

If Congress does not pass the debt limit, the impact would be “catastrophic.” And, almost immediately, this failure would hit federal budgets because interest rates would spike upward. Interest rates are already the fastest growing part of the federal budget and a sharp increase in rates would add significantly to the total federal debt. In other words: By voting against a debt limit increase, Congress would make the debt problem worse. Far worse.

But Republicans have campaigned against a debt limit increase for a long time. So it’s going to be one tough vote.

In case you’re keeping score: Republican leaders plus Democrats will be needed to increase the debt limit. Most Republicans including the House Freedom Caucus will need to vote for the budget and appropriations bills. Or, those budget and spending bills will have to include more Democratic priorities to win that party’s support.

So yes, September is going to be a mess. And after the budget, spending bills, and debt limit is complete, there’s still tax reform on the agenda. Yet another mess.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

The motion to proceed


The Senate is now going through 20 hours of debate on a House Resolution 1628 to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But the House bill was stripped of every word except the title. Now the idea is to come up with the right language to reach 50 votes (so when like the Motion to Proceed, Vice President Mike Pence can break the tie and vote yes).

The first proposal, Senate Amendment 267, had all sorts of problems on the floor. The Senate's Parliamentarian ruled that parts of the bill did not get a score from the Congressional Budget Office and other parts violated budget rules. So 60 votes, not 50 were needed for this version to pass. But the Republican leadership wasn't even close to 50 votes -- Nine Republicans voted against it.

Including Arizona Sen. John McCain who just a few hours before said he wasn't happy with any of the legislative proposals. Think about this. He interrupted his cancer treatment (taxpayer funded health care) then gave a stirring speech about the break down of civility in the Senate. He said he would vote against the bills as presented, and then, votes yes anyway. Quite a day. And so much for his words. I'll admit: I thought McCain meant what he said.

Then at least McCain earned respect and praise from President Donald J. Trump. He tweeted: @SenJohnMcCain Thank you for coming to D.C. for such a vital vote. Congrats to all Rep. We can now deliver grt healthcare to all Americans!"

Now that's something -- as is the process itself.

This week's Senate debate on TV will be exciting. Seriously. There will be many hours ahead of members speaking to an empty chamber about why the Affordable Care Act works -- or why it should be repealed. (And lots of images of staff shuffling papers on camera.) Great theater, right? Then every once in a while (about the time paint dries) there will be a call for a vote and the dramatic calling of each senator's name for a vote.

There are two main versions that will surface soon. The first is a repeal -- or at least as much of a repeal as possible with 50 votes -- that's been proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. That proposal has little chance.

Then later in the week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will propose an amendment that they're calling a "Skinny Repeal." It would eliminate some taxes, a few more regulations, but leaves Medicaid alone. It's supposed to be something for both moderates who want to leave Medicaid alone and for conservatives who want a repeal. Ha! And remember: If this version passes the Senate the bill will move to a conference committee with the House. That's where the Medicaid cuts will come back. This is a phony negotiating plank.

As the debate unfolds, the Senate is in a way making the case for why we need Native Americans in the legislative process. There will be all kinds of talk about what the law does to Americans, to the poor, to taxpayers, to just about every constituent group in America. What's really needed though is for one senator to explain about the Indian Health system and what havoc all of these proposals would wreak. One senator could say the Indian Health Service has never been fully funded, despite treaty promises, so why strip millions of dollars away. Or ask about Indian children when more than half are covered by Medicaid. Or show why Indian Country needs the jobs that have been created (and will be lost) by these proposals. Better yet: One Native Senator could use data to prove that Medicaid works.

Indian Country deserves to be in this debate. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been a key opponent of the Republican leadership's health care legislation. It's mostly about Medicaid. I am sure that it's also due to her support of the Alaska Native medical system. She gets it.

But Murkowski will pay a political price for her votes, at least in a primary election. But then she's gone through that before. And won. Not long after the Senate vote on the Motion to Proceed, the Alaska Republican Party said Murkowski abandoned them. Party chairman Tuckerman Babcock said the "repeal of Obamacare is non-negotiable." (Funny: I feel the same way about the Senate alternatives.)

And so the party talks about possible consequences for Murkowski. Babcock said her vote put at risk new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (would that be true) and said her Energy Committee "chairmanship could be at risk."

And President Donald J. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: "Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!"

So will there be punishment? I would not be so sure. Remember the Republican majority is thin. As I reported last week: Three senators switch sides and it's a new Senate. Two are already really, unhappy. So the way to make it three is for Republicans to continue to attack their own members.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

The Senate health plan: Don’t get sick


The Senate bill, like its House counterpart, has a simple message for Indian Country: Don't get sick. Not in June. Not anytime soon. This bill is not about health care because it takes billions from Medicaid and passes on that savings to wealthy Americans.

How bad could it be? The official financial review from the Congressional Budget Office is expected early next week. The scoring of the similar House bill projected that by next year 14 million more people would be uninsured. And by 2026, an estimated 51 million people under age 65 would be uninsured. Under the House bill only a few million would use tax credits to purchase policies that even then would not cover major medical risks.

So the important takeaway from both the Senate bill and the House version is that it strips money away from Medicaid ($834 billion) and gives back most of those to high-income taxpayers ($664 billion). The Senate bill takes a little time to destroy Medicaid. It begins phasing out the expansion in 2021 and that will be completed by 2024. Then, like the House, Medicaid would become a state block grant program. The Republicans argue that this would control costs, slowing the growth of government spending. (Now Medicaid spending is automatic: If you are eligible, the money is there.)

Medicaid now accounts for about 20 percent of the budget in most Indian health system clinics and hospitals. And, more important, it's a growing source of funding. It pays for medical procedures and for transportation to clinics. It's the big ticket.

But Medicaid is also an odd duck. It's officially a state-federal partnership so the federal government picks up most of the cost and sets some of the rules, while states get to determine other rules. Both the Senate and the House bills would let states do more (such as requiring patients to work) or what's especially what's covered by insurance.

This is particularly messy for Indian Country. Both the Senate and House bills recognize the Indian Health System as unique (and paid for by the federal government). So the legislation preserves the 100 percent federal funding through what's called the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage for Medicaid or FMAP. And in theory both the Senate and House would keep in place federal rules for tribal members on some state requirements such as work rules. But the money would still flow from Washington to the states for administration. Messy (as it often is now). And the states that now have Medicaid expansion, through the Affordable Care Act would have to phase that out.

The biggest problem for Indian Country is that the Senate and House bills would destroy the framework of Medicaid. The bills move health care back to the states in a big way. That can be good or bad. California is debating how to create a single payer system. The Nevada legislature recently passed a Medicaid-for-all statute (where any citizen could buy into the program) only to have the law vetoed by the governor. But other states see health care only as a cost. The thinking goes that Medicaid is just another word for welfare and states should sharply reduce what is spent by government and let hospitals cover the cost of "charity" care.

Some numbers here. The American Hospital Association opposes both bills for one reason. In 1990 uncompensated care cost $12.1 billion or about 6 percent of total hospital expenses. By 2012 that figure reached $45.9 billion. And, after the Affordable Care Act, the total uncompensated care costs dropped to $35.7 billion or 4.2 percent of total hospital expenses, the lowest level in 26 years.

But this shows the futility of cutting Medicaid and insurance programs for the poor. It doesn't save money, it just shifts it around. People who get sick will go to emergency rooms when it's later in their illness and more expensive. So hospitals will cost more for everybody. (But at least the wealthy get their tax break, right?)

The opioid crisis is an example of that. The costs will not go away. Some money will be found by states, cities and tribes. The Senate bill adds a funding stream of $45 billion over 10 years for substance abuse treatment and prevention that's now funded by the Affordable Care Act. But Medicaid expansion has been a key funding source. The Associated Press reports that Medicaid expansion accounted for 61 percent of total Medicaid spending on substance abuse treatment in Kentucky, 56 percent in Michigan, and 43 percent in Ohio.

The Senate has only a few days to consider their version of health care "reform." Already a few conservatives are saying the bill doesn't go far enough and want more changes. This is the script the House used: The conservatives throw a fit, get their way, and then the so-called moderates give in and vote yes anyway.

My bet is that Senate leaders have already written off Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins because of their past support for Planned Parenthood (there are already restrictions against the federal funding of abortion, but the Senate bill says Planned Parenthood cannot bill Medicaid for a year for all women's health services). So I think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is banking on a fifty-fifty split with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote.

That means the moderate senators, those that support Medicaid in their states, can say what ever they want now. But it's their vote that will count. Destroy Medicaid or cut taxes? That's the choice for these three: Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia, and Cory Gardner from Colorado. Perhaps it's wishful thinking but I will add Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan to this list because Alaska will be hit particularly hard by the overall legislation, the opioid epidemic, the state's successful expansion of Medicaid, and its impact on the Alaska Native Medical system. Sullivan said on Facebook that he will read every word of the bill and he wants "a sustainable and equitable path forward for Medicaid" and he won't vote for a bill that makes things worse for Alaskans. So will it be his party or Alaskans? Health care or tax cuts?

And, since I am asking already asking questions, will the Senate bill pass next week? Remember it will only take one senator to force the Senate to start over.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Not voting in a time of Trump


One election will not erase what is Donald Trump. Most of his voters see him as the antidote to business as usual. He's shaking thing up (even if there is disagreement on specific issues). Destroying health care? Yes. So what. At least something new will surface.

Montana voters, it would seem, have a lot more at stake than most. This is a state where Medicaid expansion is working well. That very idea will be repealed in the Republican plan. So this election is a big deal.

Except voting is soooo hard. Especially when it's a special election and no one is running for president.

Some numbers: Denise Juneau lost that same congressional district in November earning 201,758 votes to Ryan Zinke's 280,472.

On Thursday Greg Gianforte won with 50.2 percent of the vote and only 189,240. In November 74.44 percent of the electorate showed up. Thursday night it was 54.4 percent.

Glacier County is a case in point. This is where the Blackfeet Nation votes. Juneau won the county by more than two-to-one over Zinke. In November more than 5,000 people voted. Last night: About 2,400.

So Democrats may be soothed by the fact that Gianforte lost nearly 7 points from Zinke's win in November. The idea being that Democrats are picking up strength in a pro-Trump state. But when so few people vote that really has to be seen as an outlier statistic. Matthew Yglesias wrote as much for Vox. That geography determines so much of the Congress and that turns into a Republican advantage. But, "for prognostication purposes you don’t just want to know who wins or loses a special election — you want to know the margin," he writes. "To win by only seven in Montana, a state that Trump won by 20 points, is a clear sign that seats Trump won by four or five points or more aren’t truly safe."

True enough. But it really will depend on who shows up at the polls in 2018.

Yes this was a special election. Yes the rules were confusing (changed along the way) about where to vote and how. That just is a call to better. To figure out how to get more people engaged.

To me the real loss in Montana is that in an era when so much is at stake, 321,000 voters passed. They voted that voting is not all that important.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Health will define 2018


The House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act by four votes, 217 to 213. The legislation now moves to the U.S. Senate. If this bill becomes law it will do five things: Cut taxes for people who make a lot of money, end health insurance subsidies and much of the coverage from Medicaid, cause more people to go uninsured and eventually bankrupt, and frame the most important political debate in a long time.

Every Republican who voted for this mean-spirited bill must now defend against every American who has any problem with insurance or health care. (I know that’s not fair. But it’s essentially what happened to the Democrats.) You get a doctor’s bill you don’t like: Blame Trump and Ryan. Lose insurance coverage at work: Ditto. This is why the optics are so lousy for Republicans, the health care system is now their mess.

Oh. I know. This bill is not law yet. And it’s not likely to be. But it doesn't matter. Months after the House voted its first repeal of the Affordable Care Act people reported that they thought the law was gone. It was not then. Nor now.

Remember the House bill still must get through the Senate and that body is as divided as the House. But one difference is that there is a constituency in the Senate for Medicaid. (As I have been writing: This is the most significant impact on Indian Country. This bill doesn't just repeal the Affordable Care Act, it ends Medicaid as we know it. Medicaid insures more than half of all children in the Indian Health system and it accounts for 13 percent of the Indian Health Service budget.)

At least four Republican Senators, Rob Portman (Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), Cory Gardner (Colorado), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have been clear about their support for Medicaid and Medicaid expansion. (Medicaid is a state, federal partnership to provide health care for families with low incomes. The Affordable Care Act expanded that to single people and lowered the income limits to 138 percent of federal poverty guidelines. The numbers are huge. Before the ACA about 56 million people were insured by Medicaid. Today the number is nearly 75 million.)

A bloc of four senators - if they don't budge - has the power to say "no" to any legislation. This is the Medicaid Protection Block. And Republicans only have two votes to spare in the Senate because all of the Democrats will likely oppose this measure (as they did in the House). So the thing is that if the Senate language satisfies theMedicaid Protection Block that will enrage the Freedom Caucus in the House. That bloc stuck together and killed the House's first version of the legislation, so the second version was even more to their liking (removing federal requirements to provide basic health services including pre-existing conditions).

Complicated, right? Add to that mix the conservative members of the Senate who don't think this bill goes far enough in the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Paul Rand (Kentucky) said on Fox News: "It will take a little bit of work to get me to 'yes' vote on health care bill." In other words make the bill more ideological, not something that will get support from the Medicaid Protection Bloc.

And if that's not complicated enough, there are also Republicans in the Senate that object to the bill's attack on Planned Parenthood because of the impact of such a policy on women's health. That bloc includes Murkowski and Maine's Susan Collins.

Complex or not, no matter what comes out of the Senate (unless it's the House bill exactly) the House will have to vote again. Then the illogical Freedom Caucus gets another shot at defying their own party leadership.

But the real politics of Wednesday's action is not in Congress. It's playing out on social media and communities across the country. It's the idea that this vote was a definition for the next election. One side believes that health care is not a right. The other sees the Affordable Care Act as imperfect, but a step in the right direction.

Indian Country should be included in this debate. And we're not. Our right to health care is simple, it's based on treaties, history, and thus a pre-payment for whatever insurance mechanism the country comes up with. The Affordable Care Act at least opens up an avenue to fully fund the Indian Health system something that's never been accomplished before.

This is also the ideal moment for Indian Country to have more of a say. This is when a political coalition can be built around idea that health care is a right. Health care is already defining the 2018 elections.

And the politics of that start in Red states (those that voted for President Donald J. Trump). This bill, in a quest for free market purity (if that's even possible in health care), would benefit young people, healthy people, and people who live in cities. And paying for that experiment are older people, sicker people, and rural people.

Alaska is at the top of this list. The Affordable Care Act pays insurance companies to help keep costs down. The Republican plan ends that business. The result: "Consumers in 11 states would see tax credits fall by more than $3,000 on average, or more than 50 percent, and consumers in seven states would lose an average of more than $4,000. In Alaska, by far the highest-premium state, the average reduction in tax credits would be $10,200, or 78 percent," according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

And that doesn't even include Medicaid. Another study on that issue found the program saved Alaska significant dollars, projecting a billion dollar return after a decade. The state's Commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, Valerie Davidson, told KTUU News that "with our $3.5 billion budget deficit, we don’t have an additional one billion dollars more to pay for services that we currently have, we just can’t afford it."

She also said the House bill would strip behavioral health funding when it's so important in the middle of an opioid epidemic.

So for an Alaska representative, one that works for constituents, this should have been a no-brainer. This bill is terrible for Alaska. Last week Rep. Don Young said as much. He claimed victory when the previous bill was pulled from consideration without a vote. He told The Alaska Dispatch News: "My job is to represent those people in that state, and I think we did this this week. I work with (House Speaker Paul Ryan), don't get me wrong — the speaker talked to me quite a bit. But it didn't come to a point where I could support this bill. He needed my vote."

The bill that passed Wednesday is not significantly different. Alaska is still hosed. And Don Young voted "yes." Now he says, don't worry, this bill will not become law. The Senate will change it.

That's basically the position of Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican in leadership, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. He told National Public Radio: "This thing is going to go to the United States Senate. It's going to change, in my view, in the United States Senate in some way. Then we have to have a Congress -- a conference to work out the differences. If we can do that, then it has to still pass the House and the Senate again before it ever gets to the president. So, you know, at some point, you just have to move. And we think this is it and that this will create some momentum. Again, I'm interested to see what our friends in the Senate will do in response."

Cole is a champion for Indian health programs, especially when it comes to the budget. He's often the critical voice and the only Native American at the table when budgets are written. However he dismisses Medicaid Expansion quickly because Oklahoma is one of the states that's passed. Ok. We disagree. Understandable.

But this House measure is not just about Medicaid Expansion; it's a radical restructuring of Medicaid and capping costs. Even in Oklahoma Medicaid serves more than 800,000 people. And, remember that Medicaid is 13 percent of the IHS budget, more than $800 million now and growing. Already more than half of our children are insured this way. Plus this is the best kind of money because it's used by local clinics and hospitals.

This is what Tom Cole, Don Young, and 215 other Republicans voted to take away from Indian Country. This is what's on the ballot next year.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Extraction, waste, no jobs


A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill. The company promised jobs. And, for a time, for a couple of decades, there were those jobs. But after the resource was consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.

This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). And in the worst case scenario, a Superfund site was left behind requiring government supervision and a major cleanup.

But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal.

There would be construction jobs to build the mine, pipeline, or processing plant. Then there would be truck driving jobs moving materials. A few executive jobs (especially in public and community relations) and, of course, the eventual supervision of the cleanup (especially if the tribal government had its own environmental protection agency.)

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind … while the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.

The renewed effort to build the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic example of this shift. When President Donald J. Trump signed the executive order to approve the project he promised “thousands of jobs.” That’s true enough for the construction phase, but only 35 employees would be needed to operate the pipeline, according to the State Department report.

Keystone, at least, is prospective jobs. New ones. But the bigger challenge for the Navajo Nation, the Crow Nation and some thirty tribes with coal reserves or power plants is that new deal for resource-based plants and extraction does not create as many jobs.

The numbers are stark.

The U.S. Energy and Employment Outlook 2017 shows that electricity from coal declined 53 percent between 2006 and 2016. Over that same period, electricity from natural gas increased by 33 percent and from solar by 5,000 percent.

Coal is still a major source of energy. But it's in decline. Coal and natural now gas add up to two-thirds of all electricity generation in the U.S. And that’s expected to remain so until at least 2040 when the market share declines to a little more than half.

But because it's a market that's going down it means that tribes that develop coal will not share in the rewards of either major profits or in a spike in jobs.

The only hope for this shrinking industry is to export the coal to other countries (something that will be extremely difficult because so many other nations have already agreed to the Paris climate targets). As Clark Williams-Derry has reported for the Sightline Institute:

“Robust, sustainable Asian coal markets were never a realistic hope for US coal exporters: the transportation costs were too high, the competition too fierce, and the demand too unstable. So the coal industry’s PR flacks may continue to spin tales about endless riches in the Asian coal market, the financials are telling a much more sobering story: that the coal export pipe dream continues to fade away, leaving a bad hangover on the coal industry’s balance sheets and a lingering bad taste in the mouths of coal investors and executives alike.”

On top of all that, Derry-Williams points out that China’s coal consumption has fallen for three consecutive years.

And the international context is that coal is the most polluting of the three types of fossil fuels. More than 80 percent of the world's known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet global warming targets.

There are jobs in the energy field, but, as the Department of Energy report puts it: “Employment in electric power generation now totals 860,869 … (and) the number of jobs is projected to grow by another 7 percent but the majority will be in construction to build and install new renewable energy capacity.”

The green economy is taking over. (Trump or no Trump.)

The extractive economy (like the farm economy a generation ago) reached its peak, probably back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 people year. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extraction related jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that number is about 53,000.

Then Indian Country’s development of coal (or not) has been the story so far in the Trump era.

Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a memorandum lifting restrictions on federal coal leasing. He said the “war on coal is over.” Then he quoted Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying, “there are no jobs like coal jobs.”

A day later the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. The tribe said the Interior Department did not consult it prior to lifting the restrictions. “It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our Reservation and our residents,” Northern Cheyenne Tribe president L. Jace Killsback said in a news release. There are 426 million tons of coal located near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation at the Decker and Spring Creek mines.

Meanwhile in Alaska, another coal project was put to rest in a tribal community. The village of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project. (Previously: Mother of the Earth returns to Tyonek) After a decade of planning, PacRim Coal suspended the project last month because an investor backed out. The project could be brought back to life. But that's not likely. Because coal is a losing bet for any investor.

According to Alaska Public Media that meant a joyful celebration in Tyonek. The president of the village Native Council, Arthur Stanifer said, “What it means for us is our fish will continue to be here for future generations, also our wildlife, like the bears and the moose and the other animals will be secure and they’ll be here. They’ll have a safe place to be.”

But what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extraction-related jobs are about to be hit by even more disruptive forces. For example in the oil fields of North Dakota one of the great paying jobs is truck driving. Moving material back and forth. But already in Europe companies are experimenting and will soon begin the shift to self-driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before that trend takes over because it fits the model of efficient capitalism. Self-driving trucks don’t need rest breaks, consume less fuel, and fewer accidents. That same disruption of automation is occurring across the employment spectrum. Jobs that can be done by machines, will be.

So if jobs are no longer part of the equation, does natural resource extraction benefit tribal communities?

The answer ought to include a plan where the United States government and tribes to work together to replace these jobs: Retrain workers and invest in the energy sector that’s growing, renewable fuels. But that’s not likely to happen in Trump Era.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

She represents


Former Montana State Sen. Carol Juneau once said that she considered state office because that’s where she could make a difference. (She is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Tribe but was living in the Blackfeet Nation). The year was 1998.

She was first appointed to the legislature to replace a man who left office to take up a seat on the Blackfeet Tribal Council and then she became one of two Native American members of the Montana House of Representatives. In February of 1999 she made the case to the House Democratic Caucus that Montana’s American Indians ought to have better representation, because tribal people “are citizens of the state of Montana, the same as any other citizens. I’d like to see that Indian people and Indian tribes in Montana aren’t left outside of everything.”

Today Native Montanans are not left out.

The state has the most Native Americans elected as legislators in the country, three members of the Senate and six members of the House. More than that: Montana has elected more women than any other state: Four of the nine legislators.

And though she is not currently in office, Denise Juneau (Carol’s daughter) was the only Native American woman to ever win a state constitutional office, she served two terms as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as well as a congressional candidate.

The Montana story has a national application, too. A higher percentage of Native American women serve in state legislatures than do women nationally.

Women make up about 25 percent of state legislatures. But a little more than 40 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native legislators are female. The numbers break down this way: There are at least 67 Native American legislators out of 7,383 seats in 50 states or nearly one percent. (If you think that’s bad: Congress only has Native representation pegged at one-third of one percent.) Of those 67 seats, at least 25 of them are held by Native American women. So another way to look at the data: There are 1,800 legislative seats held by women; that works out to a Native representation of 1.4 percent.

There is still a long way to go to reach parity with the population, but it’s much better than just about any other category in the body politic. For example: A recent report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows more than 570 elected tribal leaders and, in that group, just under 25 percent are women.

The Native delegation in Minnesota is eighty percent female; its own caucus. (You could even argue that women are 100 percent of the delegation because the other tribal member in the legislature, Republican Rep. Steve Green, is White Earth Ojibwe, but he rarely champions or mentions tribal issues.)

A recent article in the Minnesota Post was headlined, “Something new for the Minnesota Legislature: A caucus of first Minnesotans.” Rep. Susan Allen, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was first elected in a special election. “Before Allen was elected in 2012, only nine legislators in state history who self-identified as American Indian served in the Legislature — all men — and most of them were elected back when Minnesota was still considered a territory,” the Post said.

Allen told the Post: “You can be a part of an institution that is predominantly white and not have to lose your identity. I can be here without having to lose my identity to do it, and previous generations, I don’t think they had that.”

The Post explained several reasons why it’s so important for a legislature to hear from Native American legislators and for those elected representatives to keep an eye out for bills that impact the Native community.

One anecdote in particular was powerful. The Post said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Poden, a Standing Rock descendent, was giving American Indian students a tour of the Capitol. She could see they were overwhelmed. “I said, come back again and again and bring other Natives to the Capitol so that you’re not nervous, so that you’re not intimidated, so that some day you’ll be sitting in this office doing the work that we’re doing,” she said in the Post. “You could almost see the light bulb go off in their head: I could do this?”

Arizona is another state where most of the Native delegation — three out of four — are women. This fits Arizona. Its legislature is third in the nation for the highest percentage of women at nearly 40 percent.

New Mexico is the only state where the male-female balance is 50/50. And five states, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, have only a woman representing Native Americans in the legislature. Conversely, Colorado, North Carolina, and North Dakota have only one Native American man serving in the legislature. Alaska (88 percent) and Oklahoma (86 percent) are primarily represented by men. South Dakota has three American Indian men in the legislature and no women.

Idaho’s Rep. Paulette Jordan, Couer d’Alene, is not only the only Native American in the legislature, she’s the only Democrat elected north of Boise. She told the Spokane Spokesman Review: “How can we continue to fight for balance in the state, with the overwhelming odds?That’s part of the beauty of our connection to our ancestors. We know that they’re always walking with us, guiding us and helping us in this lifetime … the fact that we’re still here – we still have the beauty, the inner identity, our connection to everything, to the land, to the earth itself, to our relatives both tribal and non-tribal alike.”

Nearly all of the Native American women who serve in state legislatures are Democrats. 21 out of 25. But it's also worth mentioning that two of those Republican women are in leadership in Alaska and Hawaii. (Previously: Native Republicans open up a channel for discourse about Indian Country's issues.)

I don’t have the total numbers for Native Americans elected at the city and county level. Yet. (Early drafts of spreadsheets are here and here. Please do let me know who should be on these lists.)

But this much is clear: Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, currently represents more citizens than any Native woman in America (more than 90,000 people live in her North Seattle district). She was elected to Seattle’s City Council in November of 2015. In an interview with the Tacoma Art Museum she talked about her idea about the role of women: “While men were in charge of external power, women had interior, spiritual, and domestic power. They were the centers of the community.” That’s exactly how she’s approached her job on the council. She’s argued for community services from sidewalks to child car. On Juarez’ blog she reports: “In this budget I advocated for and secured $4.4 million in targeted investments in our community including improvements in human services, construction of sidewalks, and neighborhood planning initiatives. Ultimately, I achieved a 94% success rate for my specific District 5 budget priorities.”

Denise Juneau, of course, is the only Native American woman to hold statewide office (twice). She actually earned thousands of more votes from Montanans than did Barack Obama in 2012. (Previously: Denise Juneau’s eight years of promise.) She had a remarkable run even though last year fell short of being the first Native woman to ever win a seat in Congress.
In addition to Juneau, at least seven Native American women have run for Congress starting in 1988. Jeanne Givens, a Couer d’Alene tribal member in Idaho was the first. Then Ada Deer, Menominee, in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free, Choctaw, in Oklahoma, and Diane Benson, Tlingit, in Alaska, Three Native women have run in Arizona: Mary Kim Titla, White Mountain Apache, Arizona Rep. Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Victoria Steele, Seneca.

It’s so long past the time to erase that phrase, “ever” or for that matter, “the first.”

I suspect the 2018 elections will be a remarkable opportunity. It will be a referendum on President Donald J. Trump and his policies.

It’s also worth noting that Native American women have run for the vice presidency three times.

LaDonna Harris, Comanche, was on the ticket with Barry Commoner for the Citizen Party in 1980 (the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide). This was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders. The party highlighted the structural limits of the Democratic Party and blamed corporate America for the excess. The antidote was people power.

What’s interesting about the campaign now is that Commoner and Harris focused on environmental issues (long before the words global warming or climate change were in public discourse). Get this: The Citizens Party platform cited the role of science in managing complex environmental challenges.

“As a Comanche woman fighter, I’m proud to be a part of this party,” Harris said. “The traditions of my people have always held to the unity of the oppressed. That is why I want to show that we care about the problems of Chicanos, the Blacks, women, the elderly and the poor.”

Winona LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe, joined Ralph Nader on the Green Party Ticket in 2000 and again in 2004. When LaDuke announced her candidacy she was asked whether a Native woman from rural Minnesota should even be considered? "I would argue yes," she said. "In fact, I would question the inverse. Can men of privilege ... who do not feel the impact of policies on forests, children or their ability to breast-feed children ... actually have the compassion to make policy that is reflective of the interests of others? At this point, I think not.”

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

3 things about Powerball health


There's a bad joke that goes like this: What's your plan to pay for the high cost of health care? No worries. I'll win the Powerball.

Except the new Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act ends that option (and somehow takes it seriously). There are detailed instructions to prevent lottery winners from getting Medicaid coverage. That probably fixes a huge problem that we never heard about before.

It's funny that the House Repeal and Replace plan (The American Health Care Act) includes several pages on that non-problem while the draft doesn't even get around to mentioning the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

But don't get too worked up about this miss. Here are the three things you need to know about the House plan.

First: The politics are a lot like President Trump's election plan. Tick off everybody. Create chaos and hope there are enough votes left to win. I don't think so. Conservatives already don't like the provision to include tax credits. And state governments aren't happy with a punt on Medicaid expansion (keep it until 2020 and then cut the heck out of program). And to top it off, the White House comment is at best only mild support.

Second: There will be fewer people covered under the House plan. We won't know the numbers until it's scored by the Congressional Budget Office. But it's clear fewer people will be covered. And to top it off the plan will cost older Americans more. A lot more. Insurance companies would be allowed to charge older people five times as much as young people. (And to make that more odd: Older people are a GOP constituency.) There is no requirement that people carry insurance, but if there is a lapse in coverage, the cost goes up.

Third: It's politically dead. A plan that looks so much like Obamacare is going to be really difficult to sell as change. It keeps, for example, the essential health benefits package, including family planning and maternity benefits. Yet at the same time it ends funding for Planned Parenthood. That means two very different constituent groups will be opposed. Finally the tax credits are complicated and unfair. They are based mostly on age. So someone under 30 gets a credit of $2,000 while someone who's 60 or older could get $4,000. Once again that's contradictory logic. Take from old people. Then give something back. Good politics? We shall see.

I just don't see how this plan -- or anything like it -- gets out of the House of Representatives. Let alone become the law. So don't get too excited. You're better off buying a Powerball ticket.

No defying gravity


Federal Indian programs have been added to the “high-risk” category by the Government Accountability Office. That designation could not come at a worse time.

The details. This is how the GAO defines its high risk identification: “The federal government is one of the world’s largest and most complex entities: about $3.9 trillion in outlays in fiscal year 2016 funded a broad array of programs and operations. GAO’s high-risk program identifies government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

The GAO said it added federal Indian programs to its high risk category because “we have found numerous challenges facing Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service in administering education and health care services, which put the health and safety of American Indians served by these programs at risk. These challenges included poor conditions at BIE school facilities that endangered students, and inadequate oversight of health care that hindered IHS’s ability to ensure quality care to Indian communities. In addition, we have reported that BIA mismanages Indian energy resources held in trust and thereby limits opportunities for tribes and their members to use those resources to create economic benefits and improve the well-being of their communities.”

More from the GAO: “Congress recently noted, ‘through treaties, statutes, and historical relations with Indian tribes, the United States has undertaken a unique trust responsibility to protect and support Indian tribes and Indians.’ In light of this unique trust responsibility and concerns about the federal government ineffectively administering Indian education and health care programs and mismanaging Indian energy resources, we are adding these programs as a high-risk issue because they uniquely affect tribal nations and their members.”

The three agencies are lumped together as one in this report, yet the causes of what makes the agencies high risk are considerably different, requiring solutions that go well beyond what the agencies themselves can accomplish.

So let’s break it down.

First: GAO complains that the BIA has a problem quickly approving energy projects. This is Congress’ favorite problem. Congress can’t wait to solve this one by making the approval process faster than filling your car with a tank of gas. But the solutions ahead will also have unintended consequences for the very notion of trust lands, tribal control of energy projects, and the challenge of global warming. What happens when a tribe says, “hell no!” to say, the Keystone XL pipeline? That is a policy question that this Congress has all but answered.

Next the GAO says the Bureau of Indian Education “improves how it manages Indian education … including that Indian Affairs develop a strategic plan for BIE that includes goals and performance measures for how its offices are fulfilling their responsibilities to provide BIE with support; revise Indian Affairs' strategic workforce plan to ensure that BIA regional offices have an appropriate number of staff with the right skills to support BIE schools in their regions; and develop and implement decision-making procedures for BIE to improve accountability for BIE schools.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Only hiring for BIE schools is easier said than done and the decision-making process is complicated by community priorities.

There is another problem at play: Conservative think-tanks have targeted BIE as operating “failing schools” and would replace them with a whacky scheme to create Education Savings Accounts. (Previous: Day One. Dramatic restructuring of government.) This whole notion is written by people who have no understanding of the geography of Indian Country or the makeup of the Native students. The BIE has unique challenges and there are many, many improvements that could be made. So adding to this discourse a GAO high-risk warning is, well, not helpful.

The third high-risk agency identified by the GAO is the Indian Health Service. The report says: “To help ensure that Indian people receive quality health care, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Director of IHS to take the following two actions: as part of implementing IHS's quality framework, ensure that agency-wide standards for the quality of care provided in its federally operated facilities are developed and systematically monitor facility performance in meeting these standards over time; and develop contingency and succession plans for replacing key personnel, including area directors.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Again, it’s not as if the IHS is not trying to hire people. The problem is funding and a hiring process that is both cumbersome and required by law.

What I don’t get is why the GAO doesn’t see that the IHS mission has changed dramatically. One part of the agency is a funding mechanism, directing resources to tribal, non-profit, and urban health care facilities. The report alludes to that fact with this recommendation: “To help ensure that timely primary care is available and accessible to Indians, IHS should: develop and communicate specific agency-wide standards for wait times in federally-operated facilities, and monitor patient wait times in federally-operated facilities and ensure that corrective actions are taken when standards are not met.” The key phrase here is “federally-operated” because many of the tribal and nonprofit centers have solved this problem. GAO should have said this and focused on what works and why.

Another GAO recommendation about IHS might be the most tone deaf. It says, “we recommend that IHS realign current resources and personnel to increase capacity to deal with enrollment in Medicaid and the exchanges and prepare for increased billing to these payers.”

Clearing my throat here. Umm. Congress is going in exactly the opposite direction. The serious questions — the one that Congress ought to be answering — are how much will it cost IHS when Medicaid is turned into a block grant? What replaces Medicaid expansion funding at the local unit level? And, will states even fund a federal health care delivery system?

The GAO report makes a big deal about IHS developing a fair method for how it spends money on purchased and referral care. What the report should have said is that Congress is to blame. The problem is not the architecture; it’s the funding. No federal agency. No state agency. Hell, no private medical system spends less than the Indian health system. The real problem here is that it’s impossible to defy gravity.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports (see