WASHINGTON – Democratic and Republican Indian affairs leaders in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate are concerned that the U.S. Department of the Interior has twice delayed a tribal labor force report under the Obama administration to date, in violation of federal law that requires biennial reporting.
Indian Country Today Media Network reported July 5 that Interior early this month told tribal leaders for the second time during the Obama administration that it is withholding a major tribal “Labor Force Report” due to what the agency now calls “methodology inconsistencies” that have not been fully explained. The report is supposed to illustrate the labor and employment picture across a wide range of tribes facing a multitude of economic situations to help give federal and tribal leaders the information they need to make the case for improved assistance from Congress and presidential administrations.
Federal data released last week contained breakdowns of African-American and Hispanic labor numbers, but included no information on American Indians, despite the fact that the federal government has had a special trust relationship with tribes for two centuries.
The lack of tribal labor reports from the Obama administration is puzzling and has raised political questions, considering the more than $3 billion the administration provided to tribes under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 in an attempt to bolster tribal economies. If that money did what it was supposed to do, some tribal observers say the administration would have by now released a report. The apparent methodology problems with the survey should have been fixed by now, they say, and the hold-up is worrisome and is negatively impacting tribes and Indian organizations.
The Interior Department has not fully explained why it has been so difficult for the data to be collected for the last two reports, even though similar data had been collected since 1982 under administrations going back to Reagan.
The Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992 requires the Secretary of the Interior “to develop, maintain and publish, not less than biennially, a report on the population by gender, income level, age, and availability for work.” The current delayed state of affairs indicates that Interior has violated the law.
Legislators across both aisles did not take kindly to the news of the missing reports, with some vowing to lead formal investigations into the matter.
“Congressman Young is troubled by the Obama administration’s failure to report this tribal labor data,” said Luke Miller, spokesman for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. “No matter how you slice it, this does not look good for the Department of the Interior and suggests there is something this administration is hiding.”
Miller said that Young plans to delve deeper into the missing reports and has already directed his subcommittee staff to investigate the matter further.
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) also had strong words for Interior. "It is crucial to have an accurate record of employment statistics in order to best assess need and to appropriate financial resources to tribes,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. “Understanding the current economic outlook will better help us to put forth legislation that will increase economic development and job creation in Indian country.”
Akaka suggested that on some reservations the unemployment rate is as high as 85 percent.
“We must provide tribal communities with the tools they need to spur job creation,” Akaka said, adding that he believes that the most important thing Congress and the Obama administration can do to address these high rates of unemployment is to pass a legislative Carcieri fix to a controversial 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that called into questions Interior’s ability to take lands into trusts for tribes recognized by the federal government after 1934.
“[A Carcieri fix] will not cost taxpayers a cent, yet will create more than a hundred thousand jobs in some of Indian country's poorest communities," Akaka said.
Akaka was less willing than Young to say that he would support a formal investigation of Interior for not following the law, and for taking so long to correct apparently poor data collection techniques that the Department says led to the latest postponement. Akaka and his staff would not say what he would specifically do to hold Interior accountable for the delayed reports.
Democratic legislators may be less willing to fault the Obama administration on this sensitive economic matter in an election year because the administration is widely seen as having taken positive steps on a variety of Indian country matters, and Interior has vowed to correct this problem. Still, Interior made the same vow the last time around for its missing 2009 report, which leads to questions of whether it will truly follow through this time.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and a member of SCIA, was willing to go further than Akaka, publicly asking Interior what the plan is to get the survey back on track and how the Department will engage tribes in that effort.
“Government works best with good information,” Tester said. “The Department of the Interior's jobs report is important because it tells us what is working in Indian country and what is not.
“As Montana's only member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I will continue to work with tribal leaders, my colleagues and the administration to make sure the United States is upholding our responsibility to tribal members and taxpayers," Tester said—whether that needs to be done in a hearing or whether through less formal briefings and meetings.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and vice-chair of SCIA, said he believes the American people deserve more details.
“The administration’s failure to report on the economic impact of the billions spent in Indian country under the 2009 stimulus is not surprising,” Barrasso said. “I share the concerns of the tribal observers…that this spending failed to accomplish what the administration promised: a strong economy and robust job growth.”
Interior has vowed to get its next report out in 2013, but to date has not offered comment on the legal ramifications of the two delays so far.