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BIA Reorganization Hearing Yields New Insights

WASHINGTON - A May 12 congressional hearing on the reorganization of the
BIA covered familiar ground as yet another committee of Congress expressed
its virtual desperation to make the federal government's Indian trust
obligations work better for tribes, tribal leaders from all quarters of the
country condemned the current reorganization as a drain on direct-service
funding and an end-run around federal-tribal consultation processes, and
reorganizer-in-chief Ross Swimmer insisted it's a done deal that is
"working quite well."

The one point of unanimity between them all was that federal Indian trust
management needs reform, again familiar ground.

But a few points emerged to suggest that reorganization has entered a new
phase for each of these parties. Aurene Martin, principal assistant deputy
secretary for Indian affairs at the Interior Department (the BIA's parent
organization), said that reorganization has been completed. (Actually, in
the carefully phrased way of veteran witnesses before Congress, she said,
"We are largely through with reorganization.") Though Swimmer, Interior's
special trustee for American Indians, had asserted in Senate hearings that
reorganization will not be stopped, tribal leaders had held out some hope
that it might be derailed by putting a halt to the appropriations that fund
it.

Now any resistance will have to take other forms, and Rep. Richard Pombo,
R-Calif., chairing the House of Representatives Committee on Resources,
identified one of them in his opening remarks. The hearing, he said, could
help to "prevent another Cobell lawsuit," a reference to both the ongoing
litigation against the government for past mismanagement of Indian trust
funds - and the threat of a lawsuit over the reorganization, a subject of
conversation particularly among Northern Plains and Midwest tribes, with
their large trust holdings.

Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who also
represented the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, provided some
insight as to the departure point of such litigation, if it comes to that.
Citing a recent request by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., for a General
Accounting Office investigation of Swimmer's Office of the Special Trustee,
Frazier stated in written testimony, "We think that it is crucial that a
fair and impartial examination be made of the OST's ever increasing role in
reorganization, and the circumstances that have led it to go far beyond the
statutory duties given it by Congress. We strongly believe that the OST has
overstepped its statutorily-mandated role of overseeing reform by
implementing measures that would significantly shrink the BIA's management
functions at the agency level."

Finally, several members of the House Committee on Resources committed
themselves to a united front in favor of contracting BIA services to the
private sector. Mark Udall, D-Colo., noted that Interior's intransigence
had brought about a rare unanimity on the committee before closing with a
remark, directed at Pombo, that would have been cryptic without the
discussion on private contracting that preceded it: "Enough is enough."

It remains to be seen whether the expressed consensus on the committee on
May 12 will translate into concrete legislative proposals, but the
lawmakers could not have been much more scathing in their criticisms of
Interior.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., referred to the resistance the reorganization
has stirred up. "I have to admire your persistence in a sense, because you
pay no attention to this committee, to the tribes or the courts." He said
it was "wrong to continue" with reorganization in the face of such
resistance, adding that Interior's parliamentary maneuvers in getting
reorganization approved without the Pombo committee's sign-off was "highly
insulting." He also belittled Swimmer's position that funding for the
reorganization and OST staffing do not undermine direct-service funding for
tribes within the BIA budget: "There's no transfer slip, but in effect that
is what's happening."

Pombo responded to Interior complaints of under-staffing and work backlogs
with a blast at bureaucratic red tape and foot-dragging: "If you didn't
take so long to make decisions, you could make a lot more decisions."

Tom Udall, D-N.M., discredited the tribal consultation process outlined by
Swimmer. "You didn't do a consultation. The consultation was a charade."

He too took up the theme of the way the current reorganization got
maneuvered through Congress. "You reprogrammed this while we were out of
town ... you completely ignored the authorizing committee ... To me that's
an outright affront to this committee."