WASHINGTON – Congressional pressure is mounting on the U.S. Department of the Interior for officials there to explain why they haven’t released any tribal economic and employment reports since 2007, in violation of biennial reporting requirements mandated by federal law.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA), sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dated July 16 that chastised the department for “failing to release vital labor information which will help Congress, Alaska Natives and Indian tribes evaluate employment conditions in Indian country,” according to a Murkowski press release.
Soon after the letter was sent, Interior officials promised to meet with SCIA staff on July 20. “We intend to sit down with SCIA staff to brief them on our efforts to ensure our reporting meets the standards of federal agencies in reporting official statistics, and contains high quality, reliable information that will better serve the long-term interests of American Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for Interior.
“The Interior Department contacted Democrats on the committee to set up the meeting, but we’ve had no direct communication from Interior on our questions,” said Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for Barrasso. “Republican staff will attend the briefing and push for more information.”
“While we are encouraged by seeing some movement, we definitely remain concerned and want to see where we are in terms of answers,” added Matthew Felling, a spokesman for Murkowski.
The concern from the Republican senators echoes questions Democratic lawmakers have been asking since the issue came to light in early July after Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Del Laverdure sent a letter to tribal leaders indicating that “methodology inconsistencies” forced the Department to cancel this year’s highly anticipated tribal “Labor Force Report,” and indicating that a new survey is being developed to meet the standards of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for 2013.
The senators said that officials within the Department had previously promised during Senate hearings that they were going to meet their statutory obligations, yet they still failed to comply with the reporting requirements of the Indian Employment, Training, and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992.
“It is unacceptable that reports required by law to be released and the vital information contained therein are being withheld from Congress,” the senators wrote.
They specifically rebuked Laverdure, saying that he previously testified that tribes were given the tools they needed to provide strong information for the report: “We also find unacceptable the Department's explanation that the process for developing the 2010 report was faulty,” they wrote. “In fact, at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs' hearing on unemployment issues in Indian country in January 2010, Mr. Laverdure represented that the Department had provided training to Indian tribes to familiarize them with the newly revised reporting tools and how the local data should be collected. He further testified that the report would be published in a timely manner and, eventually, on an annual basis.”
Interior has not offered comment on the ramifications of the broken law, and it is not known if officials there will receive legal punishment. The law specifically says that the Secretary of the Interior is responsible for releasing the reports biennially; this practice had been followed going back to 1982 until the last release of 2005 data in 2007, although concerns about the accuracy of the previously published data have been widespread in Indian country since Interior has historically not been known to be accurate in its accounting and measuring of Indian statistics.
GOP lawmakers are also centering more on the political ramifications of the missing reports over Democratic lawmakers who do not want the Obama administration’s economic efforts on behalf of Indian country to be cast in a negative light, especially as election season approaches. The administration granted over $3 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to tribes in 2009, and a portion of the effects of those donations would have been captured in the latest report had it been released.
Murkowski and Barrasso, like some tribal observers, believe the reason the Obama administration has not rushed to quantify the effects of the spending is that it may not have been effective in reducing historically high unemployment rates on many reservations.
“We agree that the ARRA was not a solution for growing Indian country economies,” the senators wrote. “Yet the Department is withholding information which will assist Congress and Indian tribes in evaluating the effectiveness of ARRA, economic conditions and developing strategies for long-term economic growth.
“We ask that you immediately release the report, or in the alternative, provide a complete explanation as to why the Department of Interior, despite prior assurances otherwise, has failed to comply with the law,” the senators wrote.