House passes Interior budget with little fanfare

The House passed a $19.5 billion budget for the Interior Department on Thursday that restores some of the cuts the Bush administration made to Indian programs.

The passage of the fiscal year 2005 appropriations was not marked by the controversy that accompanied debate in previous years. That's because the bill did not include language detrimental to an accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

Instead, House leaders said they were "encouraged by the recent mitigation talks in the Cobell vs. Norton litigation." The plaintiffs and the department are currently mediating a possible resolution of the eight-year-old case that could eliminate the need to spend "hundreds of millions of dollars, or possibly billions of dollars, for an historical accounting," the bill report states.

That's not to say the two days the House spent on the package went down smoothly. On Wednesday, lawmakers narrowly voted down an amendment to strengthen protection of sacred sites on federal land. Yesterday, they defeated an attempt to stop the state of Montana from slaughtering bison that wander out of Yellowstone National Park and to block snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks.

The sacred site amendment, sponsored by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), was designed to add teeth to an executive order signed by former president Bill Clinton. "Most Americans understand the reverence for the great Sistine Chapel or the United States Capitol," he said on the floor. "Too often, non-Indians have difficulty giving that same reference we give to our sacred places to a mountain, valley, stream or rock formation."

The measure ran into opposition from the leaders of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee who usually object to amendments on the bill they created. Reps. Charles Taylor (R-North Carolina) and Norm Dicks (D-Washington), whose districts include tribes, said it was too broad and too vague.

"What will this amendment do? That is the question I have. I do not think any of us know," added Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), who otherwise supports legislation favoring Indian Country.

In the end, the provision failed by just six votes, with 15 Republicans, including Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Arizona), who represents the Navajo, Zuni and Apache tribes, joining 193 Democrats in support. The final tally was 215-209.

Yesterday, debate turned to the Yellowstone-related amendments, which pitted Western lawmakers against Eastern ones. The roll call was close, but not tight, as both measures were rejected by nearly all Republicans.

"This is nothing but feel-good legislation," said Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming), who fought both amendments with the help of Rep. Danny Rehberg (R-Montana).

Tribes in Wyoming and Montana have opposed the killing of bison from Yellowstone and some believe the presence of snowmobiles forces the animals to leave the park. The animals are descended from the last free-roaming bison herd in the United States.

The bison amendment was killed by a vote of 215-202 while the snowmobile amendment lost 224-198. The final package was approved last night by a 334-86 vote.

Overall, the bill provides $19.5 billion for the Interior. While the amount is below the White House's request, it included more money for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

The bill restores a $65.5 million cut to the construction of new schools and a $50.6 million cut for new IHS clinics and hospitals. "We must maintain our commitment to American Indian and Alaska Natives and the construction of critically needed school and health facilities is central to our ability to meet those commitments," the bill report states.

Overall, the BIA is funded at $2.3 billion, $81 million above the White House request. The bill restores money to United Technical Tribes College in North Dakota and Crownpoint Institute of Technology of New Mexico. Citing a legal technicality, the administration has zeroed out money for these two tribal colleges for the past three years.

The bill reduces funding for the Office of Special Trustee (OST). Originally designed to oversee, but not implement, trust reform, tribal leaders say the office has become a bureaucratic monster that is taking money away from reservation-level programs.

Citing the overwhelming cost of the project, the House committee cut $51.4 million from OST's budget, reducing the money for the Office of Historical Trust Accounting to $58 million. Another Bush priority, a major boost to the Indian Land Consolidation Program, was cut by $28 million to $42 million.

Overall, the IHS is funded at $3 billion, $66 million above the White House request. "These new funds are a welcome step in the right direction towards achieving quality health care for Native people," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-South Dakota), the newest member of Congress.

The Senate has not taken up its version of the Interior bill yet. When it is approved, the House and Senate will meet in a conference committee to work out a final package.

Interior Approriations Bill:
Summary | H.R.4568 | Report 108-542 | Roll Call on Rahall Amendment | Roll Call on Bison Amendment | Roll Call on Snowmobile Amendment | Roll Call on Bill