Government Reopens; Indian Country Still Sequestered
Republicans in the U.S. Congress accepted a plan October 16 to fund the federal government until January 15 and to raise the nation’s debt limit until February 7.
The deal, brokered by Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, did not accomplish the top goal House Republicans pushed for October 1 when the government initially shut down, which was to defund and delay Obamacare.
Furloughed federal workers, including thousands who work in Indian-focused areas, began returning to work hours after President Barack Obama signed into law the congressional deal. Back pay will be provided to them for their missed days of work.
The stalemate, which cost at least $24 billion dollars, highlights a growing rift in the Republican Party between hardline tea party conservatives who want to dramatically cut federal spending and more traditional conservatives who are willing to bargain for policies that serve the country’s economic interests.
“I don’t think shutting down the government is ever an appropriate political tactic, and my view on that hasn’t changed,” U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), deputy House whip, told NPR October 14. He pointed to polling that showed the country widely blamed Republicans for the shutdown.
“We don’t control the presidency and so while we can bargain, we can’t dictate,” added Cole, a Chickasaw Nation citizen. “And in my view, the people that have advocated that, you know, have led us into a blind alley, so to speak.”
Cole was part of a Republican minority in the House who voted affirmatively on the Senate compromise.
While Indian country leaders are widely glad to see the government open and for it not to default, many are dealing with the aftershocks of the 16-day closure. Some tribes were forced to furlough employees and to cut services as a result of reduced government funding during the quagmire.
“I am happy that the federal government found a way to pay its bills and honor its debt,” said David Bean, a council member with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. “I remain hopeful that they maintain this philosophy and practice when it comes to Indian country.”
Tribal leaders also continue to battle to get rid of sequestration, enacted by Congress and the White House early this year as part of their budget negotiations, which cut millions of dollars in federal Indian-focused funding. The new short-term budget deal retains sequestration, although many Democratic legislators and some Republican ones would like to see it removed.
“The sequester should be stopped and replaced,” Bean said, reflecting a widespread view among tribal leaders. “When our ancestors signed the treaties with the United States, [they ceded] our ancestral lands in exchange for goods and services that would be provided for time immemorial by the federal government. When we ceded our lands pursuant to the treaties, we understood that were not ceding 40 percent or 60 percent interest in the land, but 100 percent interest. Likewise, we understood that in return we were to receive a 100 percent interest in the goods and services the federal government promised to provide.”
Bean said tribal programs administered by the federal government pursuant to treaties have been chronically underfunded. “The federal government treats these obligations as discretionary budget items,” he said. “The fulfillment of the federal government's promises contained in treaties it negotiates is not discretionary.”
Karen Funk, a legislative analyst with Hobbs Straus, said an agreement would need to be reached by December 13 to negate the federal government’s current requirement of a new round of sequestration that would begin in mid-January. The latest budget deal calls for the creation of a congressional conference committee that will decide whether to remove sequestration.
Beyond concerns about sequestration, Indian country leaders were relieved that the budget deal did not include a White House proposal to cap contract support cost payments to tribes.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) office said she worked to keep that plan out of the mix.
“Due to Senator Murkowski’s efforts, the continuing resolution to fund the government through January 15, 2014 also rejected language from the Administration to block tribes’ ability to bring claims for the failure of the Indian Health Service to pay full Contract Support Costs—despite a recent Supreme Court ruling requiring full compensation consistent with the federal trust responsibility,” according to a press release from her office.
Edward Thomas, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, said that tribal leaders need to continue to pressure Obama not to include contract support costs caps in his budget policy. He predicted difficult days ahead for many tribes if the White House continues to press this policy plan, along with sequestration of tribal funding.