White House questions 'misplaced priorities' in appropriations bill

The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota is in need of replacement. Photo from NMAI

The White House is objecting to an appropriations measure that reduces funding for Indian programs and includes some questionable Indian policy riders.

Shaun Donovan, a Cabinet member who serves as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, questioned the "misplaced priorities" in the bill, which is being brought up for markup this morning. He said lawmakers are putting lives in danger by not embracing the increases that President Barack Obama requested for the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"The bill cuts funding for Native American health care programs and facilities of the Indian Health Service by more than $300 million, or 6 percent, below the President's Budget," Donovan told the leaders of the House Appropriations Committee in a letter on Monday. "This would result in inadequate funding for the provision of health care to a population that faces greater sickness and poverty, on average, than the national population."

"In addition, the bill cuts funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs funding by 5 percent compared to the President's Budget, which would limit DOI's ability to support priorities in Indian Country, such as programs for Native youth," Donovan added.

The Kasaan Health Center in Kasaan, Alaska, a clinic that's part of the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. The consortium settled its contract support cost claim for $53 million in 2014. Photo from Facebook

Donovan didn't outright say whether Obama would veto the measure as written. But he raised alarms about a series of "ideological" policy riders that affect the IHS, the BIA and other agencies at the Department of the Interior.

"The inclusion of these provisions threatens to undermine an orderly appropriations process," the letter stated.

One policy rider affects contract support costs at the IHS and the BIA. These funds are used to cover the additional costs for tribes that enter into self-determination contracts to run federal programs.

Although the bill provides the full requested amounts for both agencies -- nearly $918 million for the IHS and $272 million for the BIA -- the White House said it will not allow the Obama administration to cover any shortfalls that arise. The shortfalls were the reason why tribes went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice and won two decisions that require the government to fulfill the promises made in the self-determination contracts.

"The Congress should pursue a long-term solution for CSC appropriations, providing an increase in funding in FY 2016 as part of a transition to a new three-year mandatory funding stream in FY 2017, as proposed in the President's Budget," Donovan stated.

Despite the disagreements, action on the Interior appropriation bill at this time of the year marks a significant milestone. Lawmakers have not approved a budget bill for the BIA and other Indian program on time since 2009, when the process became mired in partisan bickering that eventually led to sequestration, or mandatory across-the-board cuts, in 2013.

Relevant Documents:
FY 2016 Interior and Environment Bill - Full Committee Draft | FY 2016 Interior and Environment Bill - Draft Committee Report

Committee Notice:
Full Committee Markup - FY 2016 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill (June 16, 2015)

FY2016 Budget Documents:
Indian Affairs | Strengthening Tribal Nations and Insular Communities | Fact Sheet | Budget In Brief

Supreme Court Decisions:
Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter (June 18, 2012)
Cherokee Nation v. Leavitt:
Cherokee Nation v. Leavitt (March 1, 2005)

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