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As Summer Recess Approaches, Budget Blues for Federal Indian Funding

U.S. House appropriators are temporarily finding their efforts stymied to curb dramatic cuts to American Indian programs proposed by the Trump budget.

U.S. House appropriators are temporarily finding their efforts stymied to curb dramatic cuts to American Indian programs proposed by the Trump administration.

After intense meetings that culminated the week of July 17, the House Committee on Appropriations, which includes Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), one of two Native Americans currently serving in Congress, decided to approve a 2018 spending bill that would have provided $2.9 billion for Indian programs at the U.S. Department of the Interior, representing a $10 million increase from current levels. The Indian Health Service was to receive 5.1 billion—a $97 million increase over current levels.

However, after working at a feverish pace to come up with an appropriations bill covering Indian-focused areas, as well as the many other programs that fund the federal government, appropriators were told by House leaders this week that their bill was being put on hold until after the House summer recess because leaders feared that there were not enough Republican votes to pass the measure. Instead, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the plan was to focus on passing a much smaller spending bill focused on security issues.


Cole, who holds a spot in the House leadership, has told various news outlets that he is disappointed with the decision not to move forward with a vote on the larger spending bill. Achieving appropriate funding and avoiding cuts for Indian programs has been one of his priorities in the process, he has said.

“Don't balance the budget on the backs of the poorest citizens," Cole said at a June 8 hearing focused on Interior’s Indian-related budget.

There is still a slight possibility that House leadership could delay the summer recess if appropriators can get a majority of Republicans to agree to vote affirmatively on the larger spending bill.

As the appropriations process in Congress has proceeded, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has championed the Trump budget, proposed earlier this year, which includes a substantial decrease to funding for Indian country programs and services.

"This is what a balanced budget looks like," Zinke has said at various congressional hearings. Throughout his congressional testimony, he has reiterated the assumption driving the numbers: that the American people wanted a balanced budget and that the Trump plan would make it happen in 10 years.

Left unsaid by Zinke has been an important question—whether the $1.6 billion cut to Indian programs (13.4 percent below the fiscal year 2017 enacted Interior budget) was a painful one-time reduction or there would be additional cuts over the next nine fiscal years or a cap on future increases.

Under the Trump plan as it now stands, approximately 241 Bureau of Indian Affairs positions would be eliminated. Indian education is to lose $64.4 million. The budget proposal also reduces funding to Indian social service, welfare assistance, and the Indian Child Welfare Act by $23.3 million, and proposes to eliminate the $8 million housing program. In addition, support for tribal justice programs dropped by $21.4 million. Real estate services decreased by $17.4 million, natural resource management programs lost $27.3 million, and completely cut Tribal Climate Resilience Awards funding. Construction lost $50.3 million.

Following opening remarks by Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) at a June 8 Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies hearing in which he expressed distress over the cuts to the Interior budget, ranking member Betty McCollum (D-MN) led the charge for the Democrats against the cuts.

She described the Trump proposal as "reckless" and one that "[endangers] our nation's natural and cultural resources… one that guts funding for programs critical to appropriately manage public lands, it dishonors our commitment to Native Americans and rejects science."

McCollum continued, "This budget.... dishonors our commitment to Native Americans and.... advances an agenda that puts the profits of oil companies above the public good."

Rep. Don Young (R-AK), emeritus chair of the Subcommittee on Indian affairs, further told Zinke at the hearing that it is Congress' job to write the budget, not the president's.

Washington D.C. Bureau Chief Rob Capriccioso contributed to this report