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Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service on Congress’ Hot Seat

The Government Accountability Office blasted leadership at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services in a February 15 hearing.
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The Government Accountability Office blasted leadership at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services in a February 15 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on the GAO’s 2016 report listing 34 federal programs at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.

For the first time, GAO added the category “Management of Federal Programs That Serve Tribes and Their Members” to the high-risk list. Specifically, GAO found fault with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education and the Department of Health and Human Services’ IHS, saying those agencies “have ineffectively administered Indian education and health care programs and inefficiently developed Indian energy resources.”

After superficially reviewing well-documented (though within this committee apparently not well-known) problems at BIE and IHS – deteriorating schools and low academic achievement in BIE schools, long wait times, high staff turnover and poor patient outcomes at IHS facilities – the Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and Environment focused its attention on energy development on Indian lands.


The only American Indian witness at the hearing was Tyson Thompson, a council member for the Southern Ute Tribe, who came to talk about how the tribe had been able to use its own resources and initiative to overcome Bureau of Indian Affairs inefficiencies and build a successful oil and gas industry that extends to 10 states and the Gulf of Mexico.

Thompson explained that Bureau of Land Management permitting for oil and gas drilling on Indian lands costs $9,500 per permit and can take 4 to 6 months to process, while the state of Colorado can issue drilling permits on the checkerboard reservation at no cost in 45 days. This discrepancy puts the tribe at a serious disadvantage in developing its energy resources. Energy projects, he said, are time sensitive and if developers can access reserves from private land rather than from tribal land at less cost and more quickly, the tribe loses out.

The report pointed out that earlier GAO investigations showed Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has to review and approve applications for energy development on Indian lands, does not have a documented process for reviewing and approving applications, had set up an Indian Energy Service Center intended to expedite permitting without coordinating with key federal agencies including the Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA or the Army Corps of Engineers and did not have enough staff competent to evaluate energy-related projects.

Both GAO’s Frank Rusco, director of the agency’s Natural Resources and Environment team, and Mary Kendall, deputy inspector general for the Department of Interior, put the responsibility for these failures squarely on Bureau of Indian Affairs leadership. Asked by subcommittee Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-TX) why it takes so long to get approvals, Rusco responded, “A couple of things. One is leadership attention. They’ve not paid as much attention as to making sure they have a plan to get the right staff in the right places to do the job…. They need to be forward looking; they need to be creative.”

Kendall backed up that position, “BIA has so many responsibilities, but I think they try piecemeal solutions without coming together and actually solving things.”

Which led to this exchange:

Farenthold: So what about devolving some of this to the states? Mr. Thompson testified that in Colorado for no charge and 45 days you can get a drilling permit for oil and gas. In Texas, the Railroad Commission is equally as efficient. Obviously there needs to be some government oversight where the tribe itself is not, doesn’t have full authority, just like no landowner has full authority without going to the government. Why couldn’t some of this be devolved to the state?

Kendall: In part because Interior does have the trust responsibility. It would take a change in legislation.

Farenthold: We’re Congress. We can do that.

The subcommittee had not called a witnesses to speak specifically to issues in Indian education or health care cited in the report. Subcommittee ranking member Stacey E. Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands) requested that more hearings be scheduled to address those issues.

The two other new categories identified by GAO as high-risk are critical to American Indian/Alaska Native interests, environmental liabilities and the 2020 census. The report states that the government’s liability for cleaning up environmental damage caused by federal activities has risen from $212 billion in 1997 to $447 billion in 2016 despite decades of remediation efforts, and even that estimate is incomplete.

The cost of conducting a census every 10 years has risen dramatically, according to the report, and in response the U.S. Census Bureau is planning several innovations, primarily related to making the census more computer-dependent, to reduce costs for 2020 by about $5 billion. How the census is conducted – and how accurate it is – are vitally important because it not only determines how federal resources are allocated among states, but also because it is the basis on which legislative districts are drawn, and those districts are fundamental to determining who is likely to be elected to local, state and federal office.