Bill introduced to exempt Indian Country from sequestration cuts

The Keams Canyon Hospital in Arizona. Photo from IHS

A bill introduced in the Senate last week exempts Indian program from the harmful effects of sequestration.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 mandated across the board cuts to nearly every federal agency. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service took major hits, resulting in fewer health, education, housing and safety dollars reaching tribal communities.

Amid national controversy, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act in December 2013 to suspend sequestration for two fiscal years. But it came too late to protect some of the most neediest Americans.

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn. Photo by Department of the Interior

"I think when sequestration first hit, several months ago, we didn't really know what the outcomes were going to be," Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at a November 2013 hearing on the "fiscal crisis" in Indian Country. "But now we are really starting to feel them, as tribes have had to live with these cuts for a while now."

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, is hoping to prevent a repeat of the situation. He introduced S.1497 last Wednesday to protect Indian programs from the cuts that could return in 2016.

"Congress must uphold its trust responsibilities rather than balancing the budget on the backs of folks in Indian Country," Tester said in a press release. "This bill prevents further damaging cuts to health care, education, public safety, and housing for Native American families."

So far, the bill only has one co-sponsor. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), another member of the committee, warned that sequestration could return unless Congress takes action.

"Across-the-board budget cuts presented a major setback for Indian Country, forcing cuts to vital programs that New Mexico tribal communities depend on," Udall said. "We have a trust responsibility to uphold to tribes, and I'm pleased to work with Senator Tester on this legislation to ensure that important health care, education, public safety and housing programs that support economic growth in Indian Country won't be subject to future disastrous sequestration cuts."

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby. Photo from Facebook

Tribes have long been calling for a trust- and treaty-based exemption to sequestration. They note that Social Security, Medicaid and veteran's benefits are already exempt and that Indian programs account for just a small portion of the entire federal budget.

"The current and future sequestration cuts amount to unpaid bills in Indian Country which hurt the people who need these services the most, the poorest of the poor throughout tribal communities," National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby told the Senate committee at the 2013 hearing.

According to Tester and Udall, sequestration had a $500 million impact in Indian Country. The IHS lost $220 million and the BIA lost $119 million in 2013. Other programs at the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development also took hits.

S.1497 has been referred to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. A hearing hasn't been scheduled.

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