Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke met with leaders of the Colville Tribes during a trip to Washington on March 23, 2018. "Thank you to the Colville Tribes for welcoming me yesterday. Good discussion on #wildfires #forestmanagement and #opioidcrisis," Zinke wrote in a post on Twitter. Photo: Secretary Zinke

Budget cuts for Indian programs again come under fire on Capitol Hill

Here we go again. The Trump administration is defending cuts to Indian Country programs amid bipartisan fire from Congress.

The sparring began as Secretary Ryan Zinke started making the rounds on Capitol Hill last month and resumed his discussions this week. Though he insists the Department of the Interior can make do with the amounts in his fiscal year 2019 budget request, almost no one -- tribes and lawmakers alike -- believes him.

“We must push back against senseless cuts to tribal safety as Congress works to honor our trust obligation to Indian tribes,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) said as Trump's proposal endured another round of criticism before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday afternoon.

Judging by recent history, tribes can indeed count on the legislative branch to make an effort at fulfilling the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities. The $1.3 trillion #Omnibus spending bill that became law last month protected the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and numerous other agencies from drastic cuts that President Donald Trump unveiled during his first year in office.

Trump's second year strategy, if there is one, is proving to be much of the same. Zinke and other Cabinet officials are more than happy to announce cuts to Indian programs and let tribes and Congress figure out how to fix them.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on "The President's FY2019 Budget Request for Indian Programs"

"We're losing ground, going back to the Self-Determination Act," Aaron Payment, the vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, said at the hearing in reference to the 1975 law that ushered in a new era of federal-tribal relations.

Four decades later, the executive branch still seems to have trouble grasping its role in the bargain. Through the Tribal-Interior Budget Council, tribes are supposed to help Interior develop its Indian budget, in order to avoid fights over the dollars and cents.

But its efforts appear to be an exercise in futility, a mere "check the box," according to Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee. He repeated his view that the #Omnibus, which enjoyed bipartisan support, represented "a step in the right direction" when it comes to tribal housing, education, health, law enforcement and other needs.

"Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the administration's FY19 budget proposal," said Udall. "The administration's rhetoric of respecting tribal sovereignty and investing in Indian Country simply does not align with this budget proposal."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) on YouTube: Heitkamp Criticizes President's Budget Cuts to Law Enforcement, Public Safety in Indian Country

Republican members of the committee weren't entirely pleased either. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who happens to be in charge of Interior's spending bill because she is one of the leaders of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, ticked off a list of troublesome cuts at the BIA, including those for the popular Johnson O'Malley education program, climate resiliency grants to help tribes deal with the effects of climate change and the outright elimination of the Housing Improvement Program.

As she and her colleagues draft the next spending bill, Murkowski said: "We're going to look, again, to make sure that we do right in these accounts."

The Trump team's vision for Indian Country isn't entirely bad, though. In contrast to the BIA, the IHS was blessed with a $413 million increase in the fiscal year 2019 proposal.

Murkowski quickly acknowledged the amount was "not enough" to address the true needs in Indian Country -- tribal advocates have requested a budget of at least $7 billion, in comparison to the $5.5 billion in current spending. But it moves the IHS "in a much better direction," she noted.

Wednesday's hearing isn't the end of the back and forth among tribes, lawmakers and the administration. Next week, Michael Weahkee, the "acting" director of the IHS, is scheduled to testify about his agency's budget over in the House.

And next month, House Committee on Appropriations has set aside two days of testimony to hear from tribal leaders. The sessions have proven instrumental in helping protect the BIA, the IHS and other agencies from cuts.

The process is something the Trump administration might take a lesson from as it attempts to change the structure of the Department of the Interior. Plans for that remain as murky as ever, more than a year after Secretary Zinke announced a "bold" reorganization.

"Somehow, with these consultations of reorganizing the BIA, maybe more attention should have been paid to listening to tribal leaders," said Payment, who also serves as chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on "The President's FY2019 Budget Request for Indian Programs" (April 11, 2018)

More Budget / Appropriations Hearings:
FY 2019 Budget Hearing - Indian Health Service (April 17, 2018)
FY 2019 Budget Hearing - Department of the Interior (April 11, 2018)
Oversight Hearing, “Policy Priorities for the Administration’s FY 2019 Budget for Indian Affairs and Insular Areas" (March 20, 2018)
Oversight Hearing, "Policy Priorities at the Department of the Interior and the Administration's Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Proposal" (March 15, 2018)

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