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Obama Won't Kill BIA or IHS

If his budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Indian Health Service (IHS) can be used to gauge federal responsibility to Indians, President Barack Obama is measuring up okay. His first year in office, the president’s first budget request for IHS was 13 percent more than President George W. Bush’s 2009 request—$4.03 billion. IHS health care facilities construction was the one item in the proposal that was decreased over the previous year, from $40 million to $29 million. For 2011, the president requested $4.4 billion, an 8 percent increase over the 2010 level appropriated by Congress. Given the constant underfunding of the agency, some advocates said that doubling the budget would be appropriate, but the requests under Obama have at least been increases, a welcome development compared to the flat or reduced numbers during the Bush administration. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization, signed into law last year, calls for future funding to cover Indian population increases plus medical inflation.

Obama’s requests for funding the BIA have been a mixed bag. His 2010 budget proposal for the agency represented an increase by $161.3 million, or 6.8 percent, over the previous year for a total of almost $2.7 billion. A new Interior appropriation wasn’t passed by Congress for 2011, so the BIA has been operating under a continuing resolution, meaning the 2010 level has remained stagnant. For 2011, Obama requested less than the 2010 level, proposing a net decrease of $3.6 million from the 2010 enacted level.

Despite Obama’s willingness to trim at BIA, he is never going to support Sen. Rand Paul’s proposal to eliminate it. Said Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House: “The president would oppose efforts to cut off all funds for the Bureau of Indian Affairs—such a step would severely impede its ability to fulfill its responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives. While we need to make tough choices to get our deficits under control so that we can be competitive in the global economy, we should do so in a responsible manner.”

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said, “Senator Paul’s ‘termination era’ proposal to eliminate funding to Bureau of Indian Affairs is as troubling in principle as it would be devastating to Indian country in practice. [It would] undermine the real and meaningful progress the Obama administration has made over the last two years in strengthening nation-to-nation relationships with tribes.

“Moreover, Senator Paul’s proposal would prevent the BIA from implementing numerous federal laws, agreements and regulations, abridge ratified treaties, and would be contrary to the United States’ fundamental trust responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives and hundreds of years of well-established law and policy.”