McCaskill retreats attack on tribal contracting

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WASHINGTON – Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has been forced to temporarily shelve plans to restrict government contracting with tribes and Alaska Native Corporations.

McCaskill, a strong ally of President Barack Obama, held a Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight hearing July 16, during which she expressed beliefs that ANCs are receiving unwarranted preferences for federal contracts.

Near the end of the hearing – which was marked by requests for the congresswoman to consider the trust obligation the federal government has toward Native Americans – McCaskill promised to leave the record open for 15 days as she pondered her next steps on the matter.

But less than a week later, she took action by way of offering an amendment to a defense spending authorization bill. The amendment was aimed at severely limiting the participation of not only ANCs, but also tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations that operate in the Small Business Administration’s Native 8(a) program.

A recent report by the SBA inspector general found that ANCs received 26 percent of the total 8(a) small business contracts in 2008.

The findings have been particularly alarming to McCaskill, but some federal lawmakers have noted that the program was purposely set up by Congress in a way that would give preferences to Indian small businesses, since so many tribes, reservations and Alaska Native communities are economically disadvantaged.

Many Native Americans and members of Congress were caught off guard – and angered and hurt – by McCaskill’s action.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, immediately sprung to action, lodging objections to the Senate Armed Services and Indian Affairs Committees, ensuring the amendment would not move forward without facing multiple hurdles.

Michael Brumas, a spokesman for Murkowski, explained that the contracting preferences called into question by McCaskill “are a matter of federal Indian policy.

“Sen. Murkowski believes that tribal consultations need to occur before any reforms are proposed.”

“As a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs where jurisdiction of the Native 8(a) program belongs, Sen. Murkowski will ask Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan [D-N.D.] to hold a hearing on the issue and is hopeful the committee will be receptive to the request.

“This would allow an opportunity for Indian tribes, and Alaska Native corporations, to set the record straight.”

Brumas added that the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight hearing was a “hostile environment” for ANCs, saying Murkowski believes the Indian Affairs panel would provide a fair and impartial environment for the Native corporations to tell their story.

McCaskill did pull the amendment, but also promised to keep up her battle.

“Reform in this area is going to happen,” the senator said.

“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. The process caused this slow down, but has not impacted the determination to restore competitiveness in government contracts.”

Maria Speiser, a spokeswoman for McCaskill, also responded to the claim that the hearing was hostile toward American Indians.

“If you look at all the people who spoke at the hearing and the fact that both of Alaska’s senators participated in the hearing alongside the subcommittee members – which is unorthodox practice in the Senate – there’s no question that this was a balanced hearing that showed all sides of this issue.”

Whether or not the environment of the hearing was hostile, many Native Americans and Alaska Natives were hurt by McCaskill’s amendment decision, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said.

He had a conversation with McCaskill on the Senate floor, during which he explained the impact of the amendment could be harmful to federal relations with tribes and Alaska Natives.

“I thought it was unfair that she would slip in this amendment without a full discussion and debate among our colleagues,” Begich said, classifying his talk with her as an “intense discussion.”

After McCaskill withdrew the amendment, Begich said she promised to have further conversations with him to clarify her desires for reform.

Begich added that McCaskill might not have a good understanding of the federal trust responsibility toward tribes.

“I think there is an education curve that needs to be expanded with Sen. McCaskill. I think she wants to learn more about it. … Now, she has more time to understand the unique relationship.”

Begich said it wasn’t his impression that the Obama administration has been pushing McCaskill to proceed with this crackdown.

“I think this was not an Obama issue. This is a McCaskill issue. Indian country is an important part of our country, and I think the president and his administration understands that.”

Members of the Native American Contractors Association were also surprised by McCaskill’s action, said Sarah Lukin, executive director of the organization.

“It is inappropriate to implement sweeping changes to Native 8(a) participation without consulting committees that have jurisdiction or special interest in these areas. The executive branch is bound by an executive order to ensure consultation. We should expect no less from the Congress.”

Lukin said this is not just an Alaska Native issue.

“Forcing community-owned Native enterprises that are responsible for providing economic, social and cultural benefits to hundreds, and often thousands, of disadvantaged community members to compete directly with individually owned small businesses for an already too small piece of the federal contracting pie – while freeing up additional federal contracting dollars for the huge government contractors – is wrong.”

NACA is encouraging tribes, ANCs and Native Hawaiian organizations to reach out to their members of Congress to educate them on the value Native businesses bring to the federal marketplace and the roles Native enterprises play in providing resources to their communities.

“We welcome the opportunity to continue the dialogue with Sen. McCaskill to ensure that she – and all members of Congress – fully understand the important history of U.S. government relations with its indigenous people,” Lukin said.