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Senate, House nearing a budget?


This is the week to watch Congress. If all goes well, Senate budget chairman Patty Murray will make a deal with the House budget chairman Paul Ryan that outlines federal spending for the rest of fiscal year 2014 and 2015.

What kind of deal? As The Washington Post’s Wonkblog puts it: "“The budget deal Patty Murray and Paul Ryan are crafting isn't a ‘grand bargain.’ It doesn't put the nation's finances on a vastly different path (or even any different path). It doesn't reform the tax code or overhaul Medicare. It doesn't include infrastructure spending or chained-CPI. It doesn't even replace all of sequestration."

“But the deal does lift about a third of sequestration's cuts while giving agencies more flexibility to deal with the rest. It does mean the 2014 budget is the work of human hands rather than automatic cuts. It might be a vehicle for Capitol Hill to extend expiring unemployment benefits. And it would be a small but real boost to the economy.”

Huzzah? No. Thanks for nothing. This non-grand-bargain basically represents more of the same. There will be limited budget relief, but there won'’t be the kind of investment needed to build a stronger economy in Indian Country. And here’'s the really sad note: This deal, if it happens, is the best outcome possible. There are not the votes to replace the budget with a progressive spending plan, such as the Senate’'s or the president'’s budget; nor are there the votes for the House plan. The House plan would be an unmitigated disaster for Indian Country with across-the-board cuts around 17 percent.

So this deal, such as it is, is the best that can happen. At least it keeps the status quo and pushes back decisions about ideology and values past this next couple of elections. (Remember, to “win” that contest of ideas, one side or another will have to sweep the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Holding one of the three bodies is enough to keep saying “no” to a solution of any kind.)

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Rep. Chris Van Hollen -- who is the top Democrat on the House budget committee -- said there is only about a fifty-fifty chance of a deal before Friday.

And even if there is a deal, there is a division among Republicans about whether to accept that deal. A group of conservatives wrote the Speaker of the House John Boehner last week and called for vote on a “clean continuing resolution.” The conservative caucus wants to -- get this -- preserve the sequester. "The Budget Control Act is the law of the land,"” they wrote in the letter. “"Our Democrat colleagues are now threatening to shut the government down in order to change that. We should not permit that to happen."”

That language is priceless. The Budget Control Act is the law of the land and should not be changed. Just a few weeks ago this same group in Congress was pretending that the Affordable Care Act was not the law of the land. Moreover, the history of the Budget Control Act was a consensus that it was a horrible way to govern. The act was passed to force Congress to make a grand bargain. But that didn't happen, and so we got this lousy approach to running government instead.

But there are also many Republicans that do not like the sequester any more than Democrats. Some worry about the cuts to the military and others represent districts with a large base of federal employees.

This next round of sequester cuts, if allowed to happen, will be worse than the last round that topped some $500 million in cuts to programs for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“The stakes are high for tribal governmental services and programs in the federal budget that support the trust responsibility, only some of which are highlighted here, and trust obligations should be protected from further reductions,” reports a policy paper from the National Congress of American Indians. “Tribal programs, as part of the discretionary budget, have already done their part to reduce the deficit through the bipartisan Budget Control Act. Continued cuts will have severe consequences for every tribal citizen. Tribes urge the president and Congress to uphold the solemn promises of the trust responsibility throughout the federal budget in FY 2014 and future years.”

Under another round of sequestration, just about every program that serves people on reservations will be dramatically underfunded and therefore cheated. Schools? Check. Police? Check. Courts? Check. The Indian heath budget? Sorry.

There is growing evidence from around the world that a sharp drop in government spending -- austerity -- does not work. But there are not enough votes in Congress to put a stop to this self-destructive course.

Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.