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A Response to Tom Cole's Interview by Indian Country Today Media Network

As the Ranking Members of the Natural Resources Committee and the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, which has primary jurisdiction over Indian issues in the House of Representatives, we feel compelled to respond to Representative Tom Cole’s unsubstantiated criticism of a report issued by Committee staff, made in an October 24 interview appearing in Indian Country Today Media Network. The Committee staff report outlines potential impacts of House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan’s (R-WI) proposed budget cuts on the federal agencies tasked with protecting America’s natural resources, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS).

In 2014, the Ryan budget would reduce spending on natural resource and environmental agencies by 14.8 percent from 2012 levels. This would reduce funding for agencies in the jurisdiction of the House Natural Resources Committee by more than $3.5 billion. House Natural Resources Committee Democratic staff reported in August that an almost 15 percent cut to the BIA and IHS budgets would mean reductions of nearly $375 million and $637 million, respectively, therefore fundamentally jeopardizing the federal government’s solemn fiduciary obligations to Native American and Alaska Natives. Representative Cole called these figures “fallacious,” arguing that staff “ma[d]e up numbers.” The Committee staff report did not “make up” any numbers, but merely analyzed the impact of the Ryan budget’s spending levels on programs affecting Indian country within the Committee’s jurisdiction.

To be sure, the conclusions reached in the report are similar to those reached by other sources. Bipartisan Policy Center reports that under Ryan’s proposed budget, non-defense discretionary programs—a category that includes a significant number of programs that fund federal trust responsibilities to Indian tribes—would suffer “enormous reductions,” estimating that outlays over a 10 year period for those programs would be $830 billion below the cap levels called for under sequestration, thus reducing non-defense discretionary spending by more than double the amount that is cut by the sequester (approximately $340 billion). Mr. Cole may be comfortable assuming that Indian programs would somehow be protected from such steep cuts, but in fact at least one prominent tribal organization, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest, largest and most representative tribal organization in the country, is not so confident. In line with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s analysis, NCAI reports that “undefinedn 2014[,] the overall cuts under the [Ryan] budget in funding for non-defense discretionary programs, including Indian trust responsibilities, would be three times as deep as the cuts scheduled under sequestration.” [emphasis added]

Clearly, outside experts agree with Committee staff that Indian programs would be at risk for severe and devastating cuts if the Ryan budget, supported by Mr. Cole and his fellow House Republicans, were enacted into law.

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We have no doubt that Representative Cole is committed to improving the dire economic conditions in Indian country, and his long-time leadership in the service of tribes across the nation has been commendable. The simple truth, however, is that Mr. Cole’s party is responsible for advancing a budget that puts funding for Indian programs, which are already critically underfunded, at risk for even deeper and disastrous spending cuts that fail to take into account the special trust relationship between the United States and Indian tribes as expressed in the U.S. Constitution, treaties, statutes, caselaw and other commitments made to Native peoples. The Committee report analyzing the House-passed Ryan budget merely reflects what outside expert organizations dedicated to advancing bipartisanship and tribal sovereignty agree would be a devastating development for Indian tribal governments and their citizens.

Edward J. Markey is ranking member, Natural Resources Committee; Ben R. Lujan is ranking member, Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.