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Congress quickly fixes the wrong problem

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Mark Trahant | Apr 30, 2013 12:30 PM

Last week was a perfect illustration of the broken structure that is the United States government. Congress cannot pass a budget. It can barely pass a law to pay bills already incurred and owed. And its best “deficit” cutting attempt is the decade-long sequester, across-the-board cuts that hit the wrong programs, at the wrong times, and in the most harmful process.

Yet inconvenience air travelers and the entire Congress (and President Barack Obama) moves faster than Usain Bolt. So a bill is proposed and enacted to lift the sequester giving the Federal Aviation Administration more flexibility in its spending ending the furlough for air traffic controllers. Problem solved.

But for most of the country the sequester continues for another decade. Cuts that make less sense than air traffic delays, such as laying off teachers in more than three-quarters of all school districts, will continue as planned.

Or the sequester cuts to programs that serve American Indians and Alaska natives. In testimony last week to the House, the National Congress of American Indians reported: “For many tribes, a majority of tribal governmental services is financed by federal sources. Tribes lack the tax base and lack parity in tax authority to raise revenue to deliver services. If federal funding is reduced sharply for state and local governments, they may choose between increasing their own taxes and spending for basic services or allowing their services and programs to take the financial hit. On the other hand, many tribes have limited ability to raise substantial new revenue, especially not rapidly enough to cover the reduction in services from the across the board reductions of the FY 2013 sequestration.”

NCAI says the sequester process undermines “Indian treaty rights and obligations.” But Congress is unable to reach consensus on that part of the budget, hell, on any part of the budget, except for that tiny sliver of spending that impacts air travelers.

What’s particularly maddening about this process is that the sequester addresses the wrong problem. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas point this out in The Washington Post: “As any good budget wonk knows, our debt problems are much worse in the coming decades than in this decade. But most deficit-reduction policies save much more money in the second decade than in the first.”

And that brings me back to dysfunction and Congress.

The only problem that matters, the big ticket item, is health care. If health care is made affordable, if the United States spends roughly what the rest of the industrial world does on health care, then the budget deficit shrinks to a manageable problem.

So how does Congress solve that problem? It doesn’t. Instead it fights over and over, rearguing the law, challenging every dollar that is designed to implement the Affordable Care Act. Instead of acting to make the law work, Republicans in Congress are making sure that the it blows up. This approach is the biggest budget buster of all.

GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday: “I urge my friends on the other side to join with Republicans and stop this ‘train wreck’ before things get even worse.” So the Republican plan is to make sure that the health care law is as big a political liability as the FAA’s inconvenience for travelers. To do that there won’t be money to fund implementation, and continued resistance from states to make the law work.

Of course the Affordable Care Act is not perfect. It’s at best a baby step. But it’s really the only plan out there that even begins to shrink long-term deficits.

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:

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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