Mark Trahant

What is ‘Plan B’ for tribes during a federal government shutdown?

Is there a Plan B?

That is the question tribes, Indian organizations and government agencies should be asking—and answering, because it looks more and more likely there will be a federal government shutdown early next month.

Why is this a concern now? Congress did not pass a budget for this fiscal year. Instead, the government is operating on a temporary spending law called a Continuing Resolution, an authorization that expires March 4. That measure essentially allows the government to spend money based on the prior year’s budget. But Republicans want deep budget cuts. So last week the House passed a Continuing Resolution that would last the rest of the year, but that requires cutting some $60 billion from this year’s spending.

“It is my intent—and that of my Committee—that this CR legislation will be the first of many appropriations bills this year that will significantly reduce federal spending,” Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers said in a news release. “It is important that we complete the legislative process on this bill before March 4th—when the current funding measure expires—to avoid a government-wide shutdown and so that we can begin our regular budgetary work for this year.”

March 4 represents a huge game of chicken. (However, there may be a few accounting tricks ahead that would keep the government operating beyond March 4.) But this game is far from a sport because the only certain loser is Americans across the country who rely on the federal government.

That, ironically, includes Rogers’ own district. On his web site, he says, he represents “one of the poorest Congressional Districts in the nation.” So he “works tirelessly to bring jobs, better education, and greater opportunities to the hardworking families living in his district. His vision for a stronger Appalachia spurred some of the greatest success stories in southern and eastern Kentucky. Organizations such as PRIDE, Operation UNITE, Southeast Kentucky Economic Development (SKED), and TOUR Southern and Eastern Kentucky (TOUR SEKY) have brought local communities together by revitalizing the environment, providing hope in the fight against drugs, building small businesses, and creating jobs by increasing tourism in one of the most beautiful regions of the country.”

Indeed, the zeal to cut the budget is a new charge for Rogers who was once known as a “prince of pork.” The Kentucky Commonwealth Journal reported that Rogers was in the top 10 of U.S. Members in terms of earmark spending. (Rogers says no more earmarks, even for his favorite programs.)

The House, of course, is only one-third of the federal budget process. The Senate and President Barack Obama must also agree on a spending plan. But the rub is that any spending plan requires a “yes” from all three. Any one player can say no. The president has already threatened to veto House bill 1, should it get past the Senate.

So the game of chicken continues with the growing likelihood of a government shutdown.

So what will a closed federal government look like? History gives us a clue. There was a 21-day shutdown that started on December 16, 1995, and continued to January 6, 1996. According to the Congressional Research Service, “All 13,500 Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) 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.”

As for the Indian Health Service, 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.”

Still, Trujillo said, “I am proud to say that not one tribal program or compacting tribe considered, much less voiced, halting the delivery of care. There were some urban programs that were faced with closing because they had exhausted their resources. By working closely with the IHS they were able to remain open. I believe that we stood together with confidence in one another, and with faith in the strength of the treaties Indian governments have with the government of the United States, and that it is because of our faith that we came through and continued to provide services for Indian people.”

Will that faith come through again? That all depends on how long and difficult the government shutdown is this time around. How long will it last? (Once, say, Social Security checks fail to go out, the political pressure to fix the problem will grow intense.) And do tribes have the resources to provide stop-gap funding if the federal government comes up short? Back to the question I raised earlier:

Is there a Plan B?

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

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What is ‘Plan B’ for tribes during a federal government shutdown?

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