Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) met with First Nations Community Health Source, an urban Indian provider, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on January 26, 2019, to discuss the impact of the government shutdown on Indian Country. Photo: Congresswoman Deb Haaland

'We shouldn't have to fight': Tribes worried about the next shutdown

By Acee Agoyo

With the threat of another government shutdown looming over Indian Country, tribal leaders are supporting legislation they hope will protect their communities from the drama and disorder in the nation's capital.

S.229, the Indian Programs Advance Appropriations Act, ensures that key programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service will remain operational during any future impasses. The agencies would be provided with federal funding ahead of time if the bill becomes law.

"The trust responsibility shouldn't be considered discretionary," National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said on a conference call in support of the legislation.

"We shouldn't have to fight for that every year through a dysfunctional federal budget process," said Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation.

S.229 was introduced on Friday, just hours before the longest shutdown in U.S. history came to an end. But the deal announced by President Donald Trump is only temporary -- the BIA, the IHS and other key agencies will once again go without funding unless a more permanent solution is reached by February 15.

After suffering through 35 days of uncertainty, tribes are understandably on edge. Many were forced to cut back on services, reduce hours for employees and make other adjustments in order to limit the impacts of the lapse in federal appropriations, which were promised as part of the trust and treaty responsibility of the U.S.

A government shutdown is an "infringement on our tribal sovereignty," J. Michael Chavarria, the governor of the Pueblo of Santa Clara Pueblo and the chairman of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, said on Friday.

Further infringements are on the table because there is no guarantee that Trump will accept any funding bills passed by Congress, especially if they don't address the issue that started the fight in the first place -- money for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Within hours of signing H.J. Res.28, the measure that reopened the government for the time being, the president raised the possibility of another shutdown.

"This was in no way a concession," Trump insisted in a post on Twitter later in the evening, after the deal drew fire in the conservative media. "It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!"

Party divisions on Capitol Hill are also at play. While Democrats who control the House -- including the first two Native women in Congress -- repeatedly passed bills to reopen the government this month, Republicans who are in charge of the Senate refused to take them up.

The inaction frustrated tribal leaders but the saga was a familiar one. For the past decade, they have engaged in government-to-government consultations with federal officials and worked closely with lawmakers from both parties in hopes of making gains in the BIA and IHS budgets.

Those countless hours of work have been dealt a cruel fate. Congress hasn't passed a stand-alone Interior appropriations bill, the mechanism for most of Indian Country's programs, since the Obama era, instead resorting to short-term solutions or massive funding packages put on the table at the last minute.

"You know, maybe the silver lining on this crazy Trump shutdown is that it shows why there is a need for legislation for advanced, forward-funding," said Ron Allen, the longtime chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and the leader of a tribal self-governance consortium.

S.229 helps alleviate the situation by providing funding a year in advance for the majority of programs at the BIA, including the accounts for operation of Indian programs, contract support costs and the Indian loan guarantee. Contract support costs at the IHS are also included, in addition to the accounts covering the agency's other operations, such as clinical services and funds for urban Indians.

"It's really a modest request," said Allen, pointing out that funding for the BIA and the IHS represents a very small percentage of the overall federal budget.

Advance appropriations are not a new idea in government. Congress approved advance funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014, protecting the agency from the impact of shutdowns.

Advance funding is also already a part of the BIA. Schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education are forward funded so they continued to operate during the shutdown.

With future shutdowns a real possibility, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who introduced S.229 on Friday, said it was time to take action to protect Indian Country's funding.

"Even when the shutdown ends, who can be sure that this president will not force another one?" Udall, who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said on the conference call with tribal leaders.

Over in the House, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, introduced H.R.195, the Pay our Doctors Act. The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, provides forward funding to the IHS.

"By the end of each fiscal year, the chronically underfunded IHS has typically depleted its funding," Mullin wrote in a recent column. "This is a problem in itself, but the Pay Our Doctors Act would—at the very least—allow IHS hospitals to keep their doors open to its tribal population in the event of a government shutdown."

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Mark Trahant: The longest government shutdown in history is over. For now. (January 28, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Tribal voices missing in debate over shutdown and border wall (January 25, 2019)
Navajo Nation resorts to food drive as longest government shutdown continues (January 24, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Rep. Markwayne Mullin prioritizes border wall over Indian Country (January 24, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Impact of shutdown on Indian Country continues to mount (January 23, 2019)
Kitcki Carroll: Indigenous peoples deserve dignity on our own lands (January 22, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Indian lawmakers remain at odds over border wall and shutdown (January 22, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Indian lawmakers on opposite sites of border and shutdown debate (January 21, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Indian Country employees seek pay for working through shutdown (January 18, 2019)
Shutdown isn't slowing down Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (January 17, 2019)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: We must follow through on our obligation to Indian Country (January 17, 2019)
Rep. Tom Cole: Democrats show they aren't willing to work with Republicans (January 17, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Kids are going hungry in Indian Country as shutdown drags on (January 17, 2019)
Cronkite News: Lawmakers, advocates say shutdown's impact hits hardest in tribal areas (January 17, 2019)
'We are homeland security': Tohono O'odham Nation demands role in border talks (January 16, 2019)
Solutions elusive for Indian Country as impasse in Washington drags on (January 15, 2019)
Leader of Bureau of Indian Affairs works through government shutdown (January 15, 2019)
Recap: Indian Country shares #ShutdownStories while federal funding runs dry (January 15, 2019)
Cronkite News: Republicans oppose bill to pay furloughed government workers (January 15, 2019)
Tribes bring #ShutdownStories to Washington as funding impasse continues (January 14, 2019)
Tim Giago: We'll get over the wall. Will we get over Donald Trump? (January 14, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Indian Country feels the hardships of the shutdown (January 14, 2019)
Navajo President: Government shutdown violates treaty obligations (January 11, 2019)
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe fully funded for now with no end in sight to shutdown (January 11, 2019)
As shutdown drags on, some lawmakers defer pay -- but only for now (January 11, 2019)
Indian Country organizations unite by calling for an end to #TrumpShutdown (Janaury 10, 2019)
United South and Eastern Tribes: 'This shutdown must end now' (January 10, 2019)
Mark Trahant: Indian Country enters national emergency territory with #TrumpShutdown (January 10, 2019)
'Recipe for disaster': The #TrumpShutdown and Indian Country (January 9, 2019)
Harold Frazier: Indian Country suffers during #TrumpShutdown (January 8, 2019)
Mark Trahant: President Trump makes case for border wall as shutdown hits tribes (January 8, 2019)
Trending in News
More Headlines