Indianz.Com > News > ‘Your debt is due’: Tribes on alert as U.S. government looms toward shutdown
Fawn Sharp
National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp is seen outside of the White House during a rally in support of imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier on September 12, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
‘Your debt is due’
Tribes on alert as U.S. government looms toward shutdown
Tuesday, September 26, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Indian Country is on high alert as the U.S. government prepares for a possible shutdown, the first of its kind in more than three years.

Unless the U.S. Congress takes action by October 1, most federal agencies will not be able to operate due to a lack of new funding. Tribes and their advocates view such a scenario as a violation of the government’s trust and treaty responsibilities.

“Tribal Nations paid, in full, for the duties owed and enforced by the United States,” President Fawn Sharp of the National Congress of American Indians said on Friday in a statement supported by nearly every inter-tribal organization.

“We paid with our lives, with our lands, with our resources, and with our ways of life,” Sharp continued. “We paid long before political factions sought to divide this nation, and your debt is due.”

But with the deadline fast approaching, Congress appears no closer to a solution. The breakdown has been traced to the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Republican majority has failed to advance any of the appropriations bills that keep federal agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service up and running.

A small group of Republicans, in fact, has even prevented the chamber from passing a bill to fund the U.S. military, which is otherwise considered “must-pass” legislation on Capitol Hill regardless of who is in charge. Last week, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-California), who serves as Speaker of the House, was forced to abandon the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2024 after members of his own party revolted.

“I think we made tremendous progress as an entire conference,” McCarthy said after a private meeting with his Republican colleagues on September 20.

“We had a great discussion,” added McCarthy, who only a day later lost the vote on H.R.4365, the defense appropriations bill.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) “Funding the government is core to our duties”

But you won’t find much discussion of appropriations on, McCarthy’s official website. Instead he posted about an official portrait, a different defense bill and about the Republican party’s efforts to impeach President Joe Biden, a Democrat who has been in office since January 2021.

The internal drama has people like Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, working overtime to try to get bills across the finish line before the shutdown deadline. The lawmaker, who is serving his 10th term in Congress, is chair of the House Committee on Rules, where he is once again trying to advance the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, as well as a slate of other funding measures.

“Funding the government is is core of our duties in Congress,” Cole said at a meeting of his committee on September 18. “The process is never easy and — in divided government — notably more difficult.”

According to Cole, the holdup lies with the U.S. Senate, which is under Democratic control. During a committee meeting at the end of the week, one which stretched over two days due to the workload, he blamed the other chamber for not getting the work done.

“With all due respect, we’re trying to get our friends in the Senate to act,” Cole said at the rare Saturday meeting on September 23, barely a week before the shutdown deadline. “They haven’t passed a single appropriations bill — not one.”

“We have passed one,” said Cole, referring to H.R.4366, the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, which cleared the House in late July.

The impasse has a number of Democrats advocating for a compromise. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, is part of a group of lawmakers that’s been trying to work with McCarthy and the GOP leadership in their chamber to avert a shutdown.

“There are only nine days until a government shutdown, but Congress has adjourned for the week without reaching a bipartisan deal to keep our federal government open or reauthorize important programs,” Davids said on Friday, highlighting the number of days before funding runs out.

For Indian Country, a shutdown would represent a repeat of a disastrous funding impasse that lasted 35 days, the longest in U.S. history. Tribal leaders complained of a lack of communication from the then-Donald Trump administration that hindered a wide range of services, from health care to food distribution, in their communities.

The 2019-2020 shutdown helped make the case for a significant policy achievement, one that had been on the agenda for years. At the end of 2022, tribes and their advocates celebrated when Congress — for the first time — passed an omnibus bill that provided advance appropriations for the IHS. The historic provision protects health care programs for more than two million American Indians and Alaska Natives during a government shutdown.

“Including advance appropriations for Indian health in the omnibus is a historic moment for Indian Country over a decade in the making,” observed William Smith, an Alaska Native leader who serves as chairperson of the National Indian Health Board, one of the inter-tribal organizations that signed onto last week’s shutdown statement.

But no sooner did the 118th Congress start in January 2023 did Republicans start complaining about the omnibus, setting the stage for the funding now playing out in the House. And in July, the GOP unveiled funding cuts for Indian Country programs, although they have maintained the advance appropriations provision for the IHS.

The National Council of Urban Indian Health also signed the inter-tribal shutdown statement. The organization, which advocates for the urban Indian providers that receive funding from the IHS, has prepared a social media toolkit to draw attention to the struggle that puts American Indian and Alaska Native lives at risk.

“With a government shutdown looming, we urge you to protect the Indian Health Service and Tribal programs,” one of the sample social media posts reads. “Fulfill your trust responsibility!”

The most recent omnibus, the one with the IHS advance appropriations provision, funds the federal government for fiscal year 2023, which ends on September 30. So without additional action from Congress, most Indian Country programs will not be able to operate on October 1, the start of fiscal year 2024.

Well aware of the deadline, federal agencies have been preparing for a shutdown. The Department of the Interior, which includes the BIA, already postponed an upcoming stop on “The Road to Healing” that was to take testimony from survivors of the genocidal Indian boarding school era.

Secretary Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna who is the first Native person to serve in a presidential cabinet, and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, have not announced a new date for the event, which was to take place October 1 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Federal Boarding School Initiative is an ongoing investigation that is among the many programs that would be impacted by a shutdown.

“Funding the government is one of the most basic responsibilities of Congress,” President Biden, who formerly served in the Senate, said in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. “It’s time for Republicans to start doing the job America elected them to do.”

“Let’s get this done,” Biden told the Congressional Black Caucus.
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