Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States.

Elections 2012: Why Are Treaty Obligations ‘Discretionary’ Spending?

Mark Trahant
9/17/12

Nearly every politician, Democrat, Republican or independent, says that treaties made with American Indian tribes are solemn and sacred obligations.

The National Congress of American Indians made this point when it released its 2013 budget request. “Effective self-rule requires that the U.S. respect tribes’ inherent right of self-government and that the federal government honor its trust obligations to Native peoples in the federal budget,” NCAI said.

Most mainstream politicians agree. In theory.

The Republican Party platform, for example, says United States’ “obligations have not been sufficiently honored. The social and economic problems that plague Indian country have grown worse over the last several decades; we must reverse that trend. Ineffective federal programs deprive American Indians of the services they need, and long-term failures threaten to undermine tribal sovereignty itself.” And similar statements are floating around from Democrats. The point is that nearly everyone supports treaty rights.

But there’s one little glitch. No politician has pushed legislation, or budgeting authority, or any other concrete action to move those solemn treaty obligations into the automatic side of spending. The federal government spends pulling from two large buckets of money, appropriated funds and entitlement funds. The first means exactly what it says, Congress must debate and then appropriate the funding. Entitlement is automatic. The money for Social Security, Medicare, and such, is supposed to be there no matter what.

Then treaty obligations, both those with American Indian tribes and those with international powers, have always been discretionary from a budgeting standpoint. It’s nearly impossible to reclassify spending that’s always been an appropriation, not a legal budgetary obligation.

And this has resulted in some steep spending cuts for American Indian and Alaska Native programs. At the beginning of the Great Depression federal spending for the Bureau of Indian Affairs – then the only agency involved – dropped from $25,612,046 in 1932 to $18,779,778 two years later. That is nearly a 27 percent decrease. Three years later after Franklin Roosevelt’s election the spending for Indian country was boosted into the $30 million range beginning a trajectory of more. Then that’s a spending pattern that’s now set on a declining course.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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