AP images
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, left, and Rep. Steve Pearce, R-New Mexico, right

Inside the NAHASDA Reauthorization Hold Up—Yelling Included

Rob Capriccioso
4/28/14

Reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA)—a bipartisan piece of legislation that is widely popular with tribes and legislators—was supposed to pass Congress last year.

And then it didn’t.

“You don’t know how many times I stood in front of hundreds of people saying we were getting close to having a bill introduced in the House,” says Shawn Pensoneau, a governmental affairs specialist with the National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC). “I said that month after month, based on what our congressional contacts were telling us—but at a point I kind of got embarrassed. I just couldn’t say it anymore.”

The law, first passed by Congress in 1996, provides nearly $700 million per year in discretionary formula block grants to eligible tribal housing authorities for the building and maintaining of reservation houses. It officially expired September 30, but Congress, realizing its utility to American Indian citizens, continued funding it while reauthorization talks have slowly proceeded.

RELATED: Senate Comm. Weighs Critical Affordable Housing Bill For Natives

What’s the Hold Up?

Key legislators on the Hill, including former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), gave their blessings later into 2013 than tribal advocates would have liked, with Cantwell getting her bill passed through her own committee in December, nearly three months after the law had already expired. The Senate Banking Committee could have then asked for oversight, given its jurisdiction over this matter, but the time for the committee to do so expired in mid-March.

RELATED: Under Tribal Scrutiny, Cantwell Exiting SCIA; Tester to Take Charge

New chair of SCIA, Jon Tester (D-Montana), supports Cantwell’s legislation, and he has vowed to strengthen it if the opportunity arises. As it stands, the bill is widely expected to be able to pass the upper chamber by unanimous consent, as it did when last reauthorized in 2008. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has not said when he plans to move the bill.

In comparison, there have been more complications and debate on the House side, although, ironically, the two pieces of legislation now being seriously considered in the lower chamber are perceived by tribal housing advocates as somewhat stronger for tribes than Cantwell’s offering.

“Maybe the wait has been worth it,” says Pensoneau, who takes pride in the number of calls, meetings, and strategy sessions his organization has led on this issue. “But it has been frustrating.”

A House Divided

One House division was on display in early March when Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico) floated a draft reauthorization bill only to be followed days later by the introduction of a NAHASDA bill by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. Young’s bill included bipartisan support and a nod from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), one of two Native Americans in Congress. Days later, Pearce introduced his legislation with Cole as a co-sponsor. 

Young’s office says his bill is not meant as competition to Pearce’s. “Congressman Young’s bipartisan bill is part of an overarching, coordinated strategy to navigate the complicated political dynamic surrounding the NAHASDA reauthorization process and secure final passage of legislation down the road,” says Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow. “Congressman Young believes his bill, part of a dual approach alongside Congressman Pearce’s bill, provides the necessary legislative tools for achieving the overall goal of NAHASDA reauthorization.”

For the most part the Pearce/Young bills are the same, but Young’s advances previous congressional authorization for Native Hawaiian housing programs. These provisions concern Pearce, according to sources familiar with his deliberation on this matter, because he thinks they cannot ultimately make it through the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Still, money would not be taken away from tribes in the lower 48 states or in Alaska under Young’s Native Hawaiian plan if it were to become law, and it could still be authorized separately if it could not pass muster from within his bill.

Pearce’s bill also includes support for a Department of Defense-inspired demonstration project, which would help tribes have greater ability to partner with private industry on housing matters. “It’s aimed at getting private investment into tribal communities using housing as the tool,” Paul Moorehead, an Indian affairs lawyer with Powers Pyles Sutter & Vervill who represents NAIHC, said at a February meeting of the organization regarding a draft of the provision he had seen by that time. 

Young’s bill, meanwhile, includes language related to tribally-determined wages for work on all NAHASDA-related projects and access to a drug elimination program, which were not included in Pearce’s legislation.

In contrast to Cantwell’s bill, both House bills allow tribes to have greater control over their housing block grants in some respects, and they both streamline for tribes the federal government’s environmental review standards involving NAHASDA. These provisions have been fervently supported by NAIHC, but federal agencies have expressed some misgivings toward relinquishing their power.

The Hidden Division

Of note, a major division in House thinking on reauthorization has not been included in the Young/Pearce bills to date, but legislative staffers say they still expect the issue to be addressed as the bill progresses, perhaps via an amendment.

Some House members—including Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of Financial Services Committee, strongly believe that any reauthorization should address what they see as a current problem under NAHASDA whereby a relatively small number of tribes have been able to carry over a large amount of unexpended funds year-to-year granted to them under the law.

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