WASHINGTON – When the president gives an order, his staff is expected to follow it. But some federal agencies have failed to meet a 90-day deadline set by President Barack Obama, prompting tribal leaders to call for more accountability within his administration.
At the Nov. 5 White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama directed each of his agency heads to submit to the Office of Management and Budget a detailed plan to improve tribal consultation within 90 days.
It was a signal to tribal citizens that he meant business and was willing to hold agencies accountable, especially since some had ignored a similar presidential order in the past.
Obama noted in a speech before hundreds of tribal leaders that “only a few agencies” had made an effort to fulfill an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton on the same issue.
Now, it’s happened again. Obama’s deadline passed in early February with more than one agency head failing to follow through.
Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House, confirmed Feb. 9 that some agencies were still working on it. White House officials didn’t say which agencies those were.
“Agencies are completing their plans of action to implement the policies and directives of Executive Order 13175, as required by President Obama’s November 5, 2009 memorandum to agencies,” Inouye said.
“As you remember, this presidential memorandum emphasized the importance of tribal consultation to a sound and productive nation-to-nation relationship.”
To date, officials with the Departments of the Interior, Justice, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education and Transportation confirmed they met the 90-day deadline. The Department of Veterans Affairs was two days late.
Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, confirmed Feb. 10 that her agency was among those that did not meet the president’s deadline.
“Our submission is imminent,” Kudwa said, adding that she would not comment on internal processes that led to the delay, nor would she explain why her agency couldn’t meet the deadline.
Since the homeland security office formed in 2002, its relationship with tribes has been rocky, and already under Janet Napolitano it has suffered strained relations with tribes on a variety of citizenship and security issues.
St. Regis Mohawk Chief James Ransom discussed some of the problems his tribe has experienced with the department at an Obama administration meeting with tribal leaders last summer. He said the agency, along with Customs and Border Protection, sometimes failed to be responsive to the tribe’s efforts to contact them and to address tribal issues in a timely fashion.
At the meeting, many tribal leaders cited DHS under the Obama administration as the agency that needs the most improvement in terms of tribal consultation.
Previous Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also raised ire from tribes in 2008 when he waived the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to speed construction of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.
The White House would not say whether the president is concerned that some agency heads failed.
When pressed on that question, Inouye said, “The White House looks forward to agencies’ completion and, most importantly, implementation of plans that will improve their tribal consultation policies and practices.”
Tribal leaders, even ones who strongly support the president, expressed concern.
“This has been an outstanding issue for years and now we finally have a president who wants to consult with us, and some of his Cabinet members aren’t ready? They’re holding back progress. The president needs to identify who they are, make them apologize, and promise to meet with the tribes.”
Derek Bailey, chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said he finds it difficult to criticize Obama with as much as he has on his plate, but he notes that each Indian country nation has, on a smaller scale, the same difficulties.
“That having been said, the president did direct his agency heads to submit a detailed plan of action to improve tribal consultation. As he took the time out of his busy schedule to do so, with all of his other issues, it is disturbing to me that an agency head wouldn’t be responsive and get that information back to the president so that the deadline could be met.
“As much effort as President Obama is putting into this, you would think his administration would match his effort, but it is difficult to move the inertia of the bureaucracy of the people underneath you.”
Jonathan Windy Boy, a Montana state legislator and a citizen of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, said it’s time for Obama to take the failing agency heads to task.
“The president should hold their feet to the fire,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that these department heads are not taking their jobs seriously. Until there are penalties and repercussions, I fear this is going to keep happening. The president should revisit the issue and take action.”