Senators want tribal contract shortages addressed

WASHINGTON – A group of senators has requested that President Barack Obama strengthen tribal self-governance and support self-sufficiency by funding longstanding shortfalls in the federal contract support system.

“…[C]ontract obligations must at long last be paid, and employment under contracted programs serving Indian communities thereby restored,” the senators wrote in a letter to the president dated Sept. 29.

The document was signed by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Tom Udall, D-N.M., Max Baucus, D-Mont., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

The lawmakers said the Indian Self-Determination Act and Education Assistance Act of 1975 allowed tribes to take control over the welfare of their tribal citizens by managing federal programs for the benefits of Indians, without diminishing the trust responsibility of the United States.

Under the law, the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services have contracted with tribes to administer $2.3 billion in programs that would otherwise be administered by the federal government.

Tribes therefore manage a variety of services for Indian citizens, including hospitals, police departments and education programs.

The law requires tribes to be paid in full for contract support costs, but tribal leaders have long noted that this is not happening. As a result, some positions are left empty in the various service areas.

IHS recently reported an estimated contract support cost shortfall of $159 million for fiscal year 2011. The BIA has estimated its shortfall in the same year will be at least $80 million.

The lawmakers stated their understanding of the problem and the ramifications: “To be clear, health care, law enforcement and other positions are not being filled because the government is failing to pay full contract support costs,” the senators wrote.

“The government would never underpay ordinary procurement contractors their agency-approved costs in running government contracts, and a different rule should not apply here.”

The lawmakers added that the Supreme Court in 2005 reaffirmed the binding nature of the government’s duty to pay tribal contract support costs under International Swaps and Derivatives Association contracts.

The letter further noted that the BIA fulfills its goal of Indian self-determination through the Tribal Priority Allocation account within its budget, which is a primary source of funding for many tribal governments.

The senators said without more support for the account, the promise of Indian self-determination “cannot be fulfilled.”

Obama included a proposed increase for contract support costs in his fiscal year 2010 budget.