Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), third from right, speaks at Democratic forum on the impact of the shutdown on Indian Country on January 15, 2019. McCollum serves as chair of the House subcommittee that writes Indian Country's funding bill. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Tribes invited to present funding priorities despite lack of budget from Trump

By Acee Agoyo

President Donald Trump has failed to offer a budget for Indian Country programs but that doesn't mean Congress is shirking its trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations.

The House Committee on Appropriations still has to write funding bills for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and numerous other federal agencies. As part of that process, lawmakers will be hearing from tribes and their advocates next month.

The House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies has set aside March 6 and March 7 for public testimony on tribal programs. The hearings typically draw representatives from dozens of tribes and Indian organizations, who present their priorities for housing, education, law enforcement and other needs in their communities.

And even though Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the affairs are hardly partisan. Members of the subcommittee, including Republicans, have long worked together to protect Indian Country programs from budget cuts, regardless of who is in charge of the White House.

"Indian Country is not partisan politics," National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said last month when discussing the need to fund tribal programs a year in advance in order to limit the impacts of any government shutdowns.

The most recent shutdown lasted 35 days, making it the longest in history. During that time, tribes and Indian organizations were forced to cut back services, reduce hours for employees and shift funds around in order to keep their operations running as smoothly as possible.

The triage wasn't always successful. Native American Lifelines, which provides services to urban Indians in two states, had to stop offering some programs due to the lapse in federal funding.

"As a Native veteran patient once said, it is still legal for the federal government to kill Indians, even in 2019," executive director Kerry Hawk Lessard, who is Shawnee, said at a Democratic #ShutdownStories forum last month.

The impasse ended on January 25, when Trump agreed to sign a short-term funding bill that did not include money for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. The deal was only temporary -- it expires on February 15 -- and the president has already said he is willing to put the nation through another shutdown if he doesn't get what he wants.

"Tremendous numbers of people are coming up through Mexico in the hopes of flooding our Southern Border. We have sent additional military," Trump wrote in a post on Twitter on Tuesday. " We will build a Human Wall if necessary. If we had a real Wall, this would be a non-event!"

But while Trump was dreaming about his "real Wall," his administration failed to submit a fiscal year 2020 budget to Congress. By law, the proposal is due on or before the first Monday in February, a deadline that came and went on February 5.

It wasn't the first time that happened either. In 2017, after arriving to Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, Trump didn't send a budget to Congress until May of that year, proposing huge cuts to tribal programs at the BIA and the IHS and other agencies.

"He inherited a pretty good situation," Aurene Martin, a citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who has worked in Indian law and policy for two decades, said at the Wiring the Rez conference last week in Arizona.

"He should have been able to parlay that into great legislative successes, which he did not do," Martin said at the event, held on the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix.

In 2018, Trump was on time with his budget though he again sought to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from Indian Country initiatives. And once again, Republicans and Democrats on the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies worked together to counteract that proposal.

With the Trump budget expected early next month -- but after the March 6-7 hearings, incidentally -- the situation is looking to repeat itself this season even as the subcommittee has undergone change in the 116th Congress. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the new chair of the panel, and Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), the new ranking member, sent a joint letter to tribes last week, seeking their input on the 2020 appropriations bill.

Those wishing to testify in person must submit a request by 5pm on Monday, February 11. Those who wish to provide written testimony must submit documents by 5pm on March 15, according to the letter.

Fiscal year 2020 starts on October 1. Over the last decade or so, Congress, as a whole, has been unable to pass stand-alone appropriations bills for the BIA, the IHS and many other federal agencies by that time. Lawmakers instead resort to "omnibus" funding packages that don't always include the increases sought by tribes.

Indian Country in DC

Two days on Capitol Hill, more than 80 tribal leaders. Listen to the four tribal program hearings from 2018 here.

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