White House threatens veto of funding bill for Indian programs

President Barack Obama shakes hands with a young dancer during his visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in June 2014
President Barack Obama shakes hands with a young dancer during his visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in June 2014. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama is threatening to veto a Republican-drafted appropriations bill that cuts funding for Indian programs and includes other questionable Indian policy riders.

H.R.2822 provides $2.5 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That's $159 million, or 5 percent, less than the $2.7 billion that Obama requested in his fiscal year 2016 budget for the Department of the Interior.

"This funding level would limit DOI's ability to make key investments in education and wrap-around services to support Native youth, eliminating all increases to post-secondary scholarships and $10 million for education program enhancement funds to allow Bureau of Indian Education to drive school improvement and reforms," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement of administration policy on H.R.2822.

The Indian Health Service also takes a hit in the bill. The agency would see $4.8 billion, which represents a $300 million, or 6 percent, cut from Obama's request.

"This would result in inadequate funding for the provision of health care to a population that is sicker and poorer compared to national averages," the OMB said.

One policy rider in the bill 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," OMB wrote.

The bill also fails to include a fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, the White House noted. Tribes have been asking Congress to ensure that their lands can be placed in trust regardless of the date of federal recognition.

"A legislative solution would help achieve the goals of the IRA and tribal self-determination by clarifying that DOI’s authority under the law applies to all tribes, whether recognized in 1934 or after," the statement read. "Such legislation would be consistent with the longstanding policy of assisting tribes in establishing and protecting a land base sufficient to allow them to provide for the health, welfare, and safety of tribal members, and in treating all tribes equally for purposes of setting aside lands for tribal communities."

Instead, the report that accompanies the bill questions the BIA's goal of placing 500,000 acres in trust by the end of the Obama administration. So far, about 300,000 acres have been acquired since January 2009.

"Such a goal incentivizes haste," the report stated.

The White House also objects to a policy rider that prevents the BIA from implementing the Part 83 reforms to the federal recognition process. The final rule has not been made public but it has generated opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Another rider addresses hydraulic fracturing standards on federal and Indian lands. The rule goes into effect today but the bill would prevent the Bureau of Land Management from implementing it.

"This would leave the agency reliant on 30-year old requirements and prevent it from taking key steps to improve the safety of oil and gas drilling activities and improve opportunities for BLM to coordinate standards and processes with states and tribes to reduce administrative costs and improve efficiency," the White House said.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the funding bill at a lengthy markup session on June 16. Overall, it provides $30.17 billion for a wide range of Indian, environmental and related programs.

H.R.2822 "fulfills our commitment to the needs of Indian Country," Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), the chairman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee, said in a press release.

The House is due to take up the bill tomorrow, according to the Republican majority leader's schedule. It marks the first time in six years that lawmakers have considered a funding bill for DOI and its agencies.

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

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

Federal Register Notice:
Oil and Gas; Hydraulic Fracturing on Federal and Indian Lands (March 26, 2015)

Related Stories:
House appropriations bill blocks fracking rule in Indian Country (6/17)
White House questions 'misplaced priorities' in appropriations bill (6/16)
Appropriations measure blocks BIA's federal recognition reforms (06/16

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