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Senator angles for better 'defense' on Bush budget

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said on Wednesday he was confident that members of Congress will be able to counteract the Bush administration's proposed budget cuts to Indian programs.

"We're going to do everything that we can," Johnson said during a conference call. "This is a very high priority for me."

Johnson sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee. In years past, he and other senators have used their positions to restore cuts to programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

In fiscal year 2006, Johnson said the proposed reductions were particularly "egregious." They include nearly a $90 million cut to BIA school construction, a $9.4 million reduction to tribal priority allocations and a $105 million slash to Indian housing.

"Any reduction in these programs is unacceptable," he said.

A key problem identified by Johnson and other lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Indian Affairs panel, is the administration's shifting of funds to the Office of Special Trustee. Since President Bush took over the White House in January 2001, the funding for trust reform has increased dramatically each year while other Indian programs are flat-lined, reduced or eliminated altogether.

Next year, Bush is seeking a 40 percent increase in funds for OST, mostly to conduct an historical accounting that the government and the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit say is not assured of success.

"I've got very great concerns about the bloated budget for the OST," Johnson said. "It's not a difficult stretch to believe that this increase will be at the cost of reducing other Indian program funding."

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said last week that the latest budget continues a dangerous trend in federal-tribal relations. He said per capita spending on Indian programs has continued to decline in recent years, affecting a population that has never received adequate funds.

"Though federal spending for Indians has lost ground compared to the population at large, tribal self-governance has proven that the federal government that invests with the tribes pays off," Hall told lawmakers. A Harvard study released last month concluded that tribes who take greater control of their affairs saw increases in income levels and employment while cutting poverty.

Even for agencies such as the Indian Health Service where funding is not cut by the new budget, tribal leaders and their supporters see problems. According to statistics, the federal government spends twice as much on health care for prisoners than on health services for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

"The frustration that I have is that once again we're playing defense," said Johnson. "We're trying to correct egregious underfunding of Native American programs just to get back to where we were -- and where we were was not adequate."

The dance between Congress and the White House has already begun as the appropriations committees hear from administration witnesses about the new budget. Interior Secretary Gale Norton is expected to testify in the coming weeks about her department's request.

Last year, Congress passed an $388 billion omnibus that restored nearly every cut the White House sought in the current 2005 budget and pared back OST's funding. The only area where lawmakers did not improve on Bush's request was Indian housing.

Budget Documents:
DOI Budget in Brief | Trust Responsibilities | Tribal Communities | Bureau of Indian Affairs | Departmental Offices [includes Office of Special Trustee] | DOI [from White House]