Protecting Federal Spending on American Indians and Alaska Natives ‘to Some Degree’

Mark Trahant

The National Congress of American Indians proposed a fiscal year 2010 budget [PDF file] last week. It called for modest increases in a variety of federal programs, making the case that more money is required for American Indian and Alaska Native programs because of historic underfunding.

“Tribal leaders look to the upcoming fiscal year with great anticipation for honorable fulfillment of federal trust, treaty, moral and statutory obligations to tribes in the 21st century,” the proposal said. The NCAI budget proposal “presents a fresh opportunity for the U.S. government to live up to the promises made to tribes....” The NCAI request captures the wide variety of needs for services and programs across Indian Country.

In some years this proposal might get a fair hearing. Not this year.

NCAI describes the essence of the challenge ahead: “... in FY 2012, Indian programs should, at least, be held harmless and exempted from across-the-board recessions.”

Can Indian Country hold on to its gains, budget-wise and program-wise? Will essential services—money for schools, clinics, tribal governments—be cut so deeply that the result is havoc? Is there any sort of back-up plan? The answers to those questions are complicated by the failure of Congress to pass a budget last year and that’s where much of the action begins on Capitol Hill. There’s a range of thinking that goes from congressional calls for deep reductions to the Obama administration’s proposal for an overall budget freeze. Or worse.

Let’s start with worse. New Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has introduced the “Cut Federal Spending Act of 2011” [PDF file]. It would cut this year’s spending by $500 billion, eliminating the Bureau of Indian Affairs, departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and the Bureau of Reclamation. His plan would cut the Indian Health Service by nearly half.

Paul told The Hill newspaper: “By removing programs that are beyond the constitutional role of the federal government, such as education and housing, we are cutting nearly 40 percent of our projected deficit and removing the big-government bureaucrats who stand in the way of efficiency in our federal government.”

I would love to see the reaction in conservative communities in the West that are dependent on subsidized federal water, at least, if there were to be any real debate on this bill, especially the elimination of the Bureau of Reclamation. How much would people pay in Denver to water their lawn? What would California agri-businesses say about paying the same price for water as a municipal water system? Would there be any private sector buyers for federal water systems ... especially with that resource shrinking because of climate changes?

Fortunately, Paul’s Tea Party Caucus in the Senate remains teensy -- as are the odds that this bill becomes law.

However these are not ordinary days. Paul and his colleagues can cause lots of mischief because Republican votes will be needed for Congress to increase the nation’s debt limit, probably next month. Republicans are saying that severe reductions in federal spending will be required as part of any deal to do that. (Another proposal that’s being explored is to pay China and other creditors first, leaving the government short of cash to pay for program operations.)

These fanciful proposals will draw lots of fireworks. But the bigger problem is that these maneuvers add to the downward pressure. They make other deep federal budget cuts appear reasonable by comparison.

Remember these early fights are over this year’s spending—the government is operating on a Continuing Resolution, or a temporary budget that started last fall. That means any reductions—even five or ten percent—will pack extra wallop because the cuts will have to be made over a shorter period of time instead of a year.

President Barack Obama will release his FY 2012 budget in a couple of weeks. Last year the administration did a great job of protecting programs for American Indian and Alaska Natives—I suspect he will try to do the same this time around, even with his government holding to an overall freeze in spending.

And a few Republicans are saying the same thing. The new chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Mike Simpson, from Blackfoot, Idaho, told The Associated Press that he will be trying to protect the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service budgets “to some degree.”

Wow. Imagine that. The best we can hope for in this Congress is that the Indian affairs budget might be protected to some degree.

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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iimaccountholder's picture
When it comes to adequate budgets for federal Indian Affairs business, don’t hold your breath. In Cobell we learned about a historical and tragic Indian history of congressional and government neglect of their constitutional trust duties. The U.S. has been trying to get out of the Indian business incognito and deteriorating budgets is also historic and their answer. Also, a Government Accountability Office, Office of the Inspector General, Senate Panel and public investigative reports indicated historic mismanagement, mis-spending and inadequate budgets that caused Indian program failure. This in turn caused destruction of Indian land where the trust is and continued deterioration of federal services to Tribes. Tribes and BIA submit an annual budget request to the government. This budget request is usually based on need, has required justification based on what problems can be resolved and what can be accomplished. In some cases, it can build a stronger foundation for tribal programs delivering services. Then without proper funding, problems carryover into the next fiscal year until overwhelmed and waiting to be discovered until the next investigation. Then periodically another Indian lawsuit usually declares the government in breach of their trust responsibilities again. The lawsuits are expensive. The government again defends their mismanagement and it waste time and resources that could be put to better use. Why does Tribes or Individual Indians always have to sue the government for their basic rights and entitlements? The U.S. Courts declared that lack of funding in Indian lawsuits is not a legal excuse for failing to administer their trust duties to Indians. But does that mean the next government budget for Indian Affairs is going to be more than adequate? Usually not but the only increases will be for the cost of living allowances public utilities and for government employee pay raises, awards and promotions. In Cobell, the government failed in administering their trust duties but still gets awarded annually. Who knows what the final costs will be for Cobell and the governments trust reform attempts? At one time $187 billion was thought to be owed to Indians and now it’s settled at $3.4 billion. The costs of all trust reform attempts of the broken government Indian system are also in the high billions and it’s still not fixed. Judge Lamberth said the government can only explain an appearance of trust and the government conducted an expensive appearance of trust reform but still fixed nothing. As an Individual Indian accountholder, I am given $1,500 to forget all that happened and surrender my right to sue the government. New and adequate money for Indian budgets could have been approved annually commensurate with need and trust duty preventing expensive lawsuits. You will not see large, annual increases in Indian budgets and then the government gets sued again for the same broken trust system. But in this case, lawsuits are cheaper for the government. Is this what they call “simple actuarial analysis.” It also forces them out of the Indian trust business and they can still appropriate low-ball Indian budgets. Thomas M. Wabnum, BIA/OST Budget Analyst retired.