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Democrats Stoke Unnecessary Fear Over Ryan Budget and Indian Country

A column by Tom Cole in response to a column by Ed Markey and Ben Lujan.

In their recent letter to Indian Country Today Media Network, Congressmen Ed Markey and Ben Ray Lujan expressed concern that chronically underfunded tribal programs are in jeopardy of damaging further spending reductions. I share these concerns and appreciate their efforts to highlight the unique challenges with which Indian country struggles.

However, the fears stoked by the House Natural Resources Committee Minority regarding the effects of the Ryan budget simply do not match the reality of the funding actually allocated by the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior and Environment on which I serve. The House majority has already been operating under the Ryan budget for two fiscal years, and in each of those years the funds appropriated for Indian country have surpassed both the dollars authorized under the budget framework and the amount requested by President Obama. House-passed appropriations for Indian programs including BIA and IHS have also been higher than final levels negotiated with the Democratically controlled Senate.

The committee report cited by the ranking members claims that BIA’s budget would be cut by $375 million and the IHS budget would be cut by $637 million. Fortunately, action in the House of Representatives speaks louder than the words found in the committee report. And action the past two fiscal years has been good for Indian country. In FY12, House-passed BIA funding surpassed the president’s request by more than $18.9 million. For IHS, the House-passed legislation included $392.4 million more than FY 11, which was the single highest percentage of any program in the Interior Appropriations bill, and $595 million more than the final funding agreed to by the Senate. For FY 13, BIA funding in the bill reported out of the House Appropriations Committee included $36.8 million more than FY 12, which was also $41.4 million more than president’s request. IHS fared equally well, with $183.4 million more than FY 12, which was $70.6 million more than the funding requested by President Obama.

Awareness is key. I’ve accompanied numerous congressional delegations to Native American reservations and seen the eye-opening effects such educational opportunities can have. Members with little prior knowledge of tribal issues come away with a sober and lasting appreciation for the challenges in Indian country, as well as the proven effectiveness and unrealized potential of support programs.

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In addition to raising awareness and working to protect critical funding, there are structural changes we can make on a bipartisan basis. Earlier this year, I introduced legislation, H.R. 2362, that would have facilitated foreign investment on tribal lands with not only Turkey but any WTO nation. Unfortunately, the commonsense policy was brought down due in no small part to efforts by my Democratic colleagues to connect the legislation to the centuries old conflicts between Turks, Armenians and Greeks. My legislation had nothing to do with those disagreements and was simply aimed at drawing investments onto tribal lands, but some chose to make a political point rather than help Indian country. While it is critical that Congress appropriate money for tribal programs to help those in need and to meet our trust responsibilities to provide basic services, we could help tribes prosper if members who care about Indian Country will overcome partisan differences to enact policies breaking down barriers to development on tribal lands.

The United States’ treaty obligations are not partisan. Honoring our commitments to tribal citizens is not partisan. The work we do in the Appropriations Committee to fund essential tribal programs is not partisan. With a $16 trillion debt and persistently high unemployment, there are certainly no guarantees. Every program is subject to evaluation as we work to avoid fiscal catastrophe. However, the recent track record of the Appropriations Committee is encouraging. The reality is that in the 112th Congress, the House has funded critical programs for Indians while making cuts to other budget items, and we have done so in a bipartisan manner.

While Democrats and Republicans may not agree on the total amount the federal government should spend, there is agreement that we cannot balance any budget on the backs of the first Americans who statistically are the last Americans.

Thomas Jeffery Cole is the U.S. Representative for Oklahoma's 4th congressional district, serving since 2003.