Indian Country scores on DOI budget bill
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The House late last night approved the Department of Interior's $19.7 billion spending bill after two days of debate that stripped it of provisions offensive to tribes and Indian trust fund beneficiaries.

By a vote of 377 to 46, lawmakers cleared a fiscal year 2003 budget that contains a record $2.9 billion for the Indian Health Service and $2.4 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and related programs. A total of 178 Republicans, 198 Democrats and one independent supported the measure.

Approval came amid considerable controversy over bill language affecting Indian Country. Tribes and representatives of Indian account holders lobbied heavily against a number of provisions and scored a bipartisan victory on two amendments.

In a resounding 281 to 144 vote on the first amendment -- introduced by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the House Resources Committee -- lawmakers removed limits to the court-secured rights of more than 500,000 American Indians whose assets have been mismanaged for more than a century. A federal judge ordered a full accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust in a landmark December 1999 decision.

The bill, however, would have prevented Secretary of Interior Gale Norton from fulfilling her responsibilities. Lawmakers criticized the measure as harmful to Indian account holders but also called on the Bush administration to settle the six-year-old case.

"We cannot keep funding this sort of Alice in Wonderland attempt at accounting," said Rep. George Miller (D).

Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney representing the Indian beneficiaries, agreed that the vote sent a clear message to the Interior. "This will hopefully force the Secretary to admit the obvious, that the department just cannot do an accounting," he said.

Another sweeping victory came on an amendment offered by Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus. The bipartisan group of 99 lawmakers rallied against an Indian gaming study, saying it was a waste of time and money.

American Indians and Alaska Natives "are tired of having people study them and tell them how to solve their problems," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska.). "If you really want to help the American Native, let them help themselves."

The trust fund provisions were inserted into the bill by Reps. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the retiring chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee. Dicks defended his action as an attempt to control spiraling costs associated with failed departmental efforts to fix the broken trust fund.

"This is not an effort by the committee to do something to harm the tribes that are affected," he asserted. But in the end, Dicks only drew the support of a total of 12 Democrats.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) also lost on his Commission on Native American Policy. Yesterday, he lashed out against tribal leaders -- including the the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization, and the National Indian Gaming Association, which represents more than 150 tribes -- for their opposition.

"We in the government have failed Native Americans," he said.

While no one disagreed with his conclusion, lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected the commission, which would have been heavily weighted towards states and local governments. A vote of 273 to 151 stripped the bill of the Wolf provision.

The White House, in a statement on the bill, said it had "concerns" about the gaming study. However, the Office of Management and Budget approved the trust fund provisions and said they "will not interfere with the conduct of the Cobell v. Norten [sic] litigation."

Rahall reacted positively to approval of his amendment. "Today's vote signifies a great victory for Indian Country," he said. "While it does not solve the trust fund crisis, by striking the provision to limit the accounting of the trust funds, Congress has demonstrated its commitment to fully address the mismanagement of Native American money."

"I am committed to continued consultation with Native American account holders to prevent the perpetuation of a government accounting scandal."

Roll Call:
Rahall Indian Trust Fund Amendment (7/17) | Hayworth Gaming Commission Amendment (7/17)

Relevant Bills:
H.R.5093 | S.2708

Relevant Documents:
White House Statement of Administration Policy (7/16) | Rahall Letter (7/15) | Hayworth-Kildee Letter (7/12) | 8th Court Monitor Report (7/11) | House Committee Report (7/9) | Senate Committee Report (6/27)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Related Stories:
Debate rages on Interior bill (7/17)
White House approved DOI spending bill (7/17)
Objections on trust fund ignored (7/16)
House to debate DOI funding bill (7/16)
IIM project affects little in trust (7/16)
House trust fund bill opposed (7/15)
Full accounting said not 'cost effective' (7/15)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
DOI denies involvement in House bill (7/12)
Court monitor releases new report (7/11)
ABC program to focus on Indian trust fund (7/11)
Tribes express doubts on trust reform (7/11)
Norton delivers accounting plan (7/5)
Cobell kicks off Indian Country tour (7/3)
Trust fund monitor defended (7/2)
Historical accounting plan delayed (7/2)
Norton's accounting funds limited (6/28)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)