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Mark Trahant: How to stop the sequester: Win the next election

A couple of weeks ago I was on Capitol Hill. In between meetings, I sat in the sun and watched tourists come and go. I also saw the First Amendment in action -- the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances (or lobbying as it’s known these days) -- as tribal leaders, community representatives and lobbyists rushed past the visitors on their way to their next appointment.

This is the tried-and-true formula for reversing such things as the sequester. Someone from the home district flies to Washington and then makes the case to their member of Congress for a different course. It’s how the process is supposed to work.

It’s even possible that this route will work again. Sometime this summer when Congress enacts a new debt ceiling or next year’s budget there might be enough support to fix the worst problems of the sequester.

Then again it’s important to remember that the sequester is just one element in the broader austerity push. Austerity is a trend in governance, federal, state, and even tribal, and resources will continue to shrink. The only way to slow, let alone reverse, this trend is to substitute the players on Capitol Hill. In other words: Win the next election.

What if Democrats ran the House of Representatives and the Senate during Obama’s last two years in office? The budgets would be far superior for Indian Country (to be fair: there is support from Republicans for Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs money, the difference would be that Democrats support that revenue stream plus money from other federal program sources.)

Democrats need to win 17 seats to make that so. And Indian Country could help make up that difference.

Last week, for example, two GOP House members made headlines because they said stupid things: Alaska’s Don Young and North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer.

But what if Alaska Natives organized, found the right House candidate, and voted with the kind of enthusiasm that returned Lisa Murkowski to her Senate office in 2010? The senator told the Alaska Federation of Natives last year: “When you came together as a native community from Metlakatla in the south, to Barrow, out to the Aleutian chain, when you came together in that somewhat improbable write-in campaign in 2010. You came together to demonstrate that nothing really is impossible -- and that through unity, incredible things are going to happen.”

A similar thing happened -- and could happen again -- in North Dakota. In last year’s Senate race, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won by one-half of one percent over her Republican opponent. She did that by winning Indian Country’s votes, carrying those counties with nearly 70 percent of the vote. (A Daily Kos blog pointed out that Heitkamp won a higher percentage of votes from Turtle Mountain and Standing Rock than she did in her home county.)

Could this work again in North Dakota? In the House race? The numbers at first glance look daunting because Cramer won last year with some 175,000 votes, or 55 percent.

But here is the twist: There will be fewer voters in 2014. That means that if Indian Country could get organized, excited and actually turn out voters, then the power of that Native vote is amplified. During the presidential election year, more than 61 percent of North Dakota voters cast ballots. But in 2010 less than half, or 48 percent, of the eligible voters went the the polls.

The Native vote project was huge in the 2012 election. But the potential to impact the Congress is even greater in 2014. Start with Alaska and North Dakota, but then look at the math across the country, in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, Washington, and Oklahoma. Many of these are red states where Democrats rarely win. Unless Indian Country votes and changes the equation.

Seventeen votes? No problem. Kind of like a three-point shot by Shoni Schimmel.


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