Trump Proposes Hundreds of Millions in Cuts to Federal Appropriations for Indian Country

President Trump proposed a budget that slashes federal Indian country appropriations by more than 10 percent – that would result in fiscal pain for tribes.

When Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, many of us had questions about whether the United States would continue to meet its trust responsibility to Native Americans. We hoped that Trump would meet it robustly, even if perhaps in a somewhat different manner than President Obama. President Trump's reversals on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline decisions were ominous signs. This week Trump provided even more insights into his priorities. On Tuesday, May 23, 2017, President Trump sent his Fiscal Year 2018 spending blueprint to Congress. This proposal reflects President Trump's opening bid in negotiations with Congress for the fiscal future of our country, beginning with the fiscal year starting October 1 of 2017.

Overall, Trump's proposal increases defense spending significantly and cuts deeply most programs for the poor. Trump's budget slashes federal Indian country appropriations by more than 10 percent. For example, at $2.488 billion, Trump's request for the U.S. Department of Interior's Indian Affairs budget alone is a $300 million cut from Obama's FY 2016 budget, which was the last full year appropriation (we have since operated on continuing resolutions). Trump's proposal also cuts more than $50 million for the Indian country housing programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and zeroes out $8 million from the BIA budget for housing. For the Indian Health Service, Trump's budget eliminates roughly $150 million.


If Congress accepts Trump's proposal, Indian country will feel the whipsaw of last November's election. During President Obama's tenure, Indian country saw tremendous increases in federal appropriations. The FY 2016 budget, President Obama's last enacted budget, was the culmination of a relationship characterized by years of annual White House meetings between Obama and tribes. In his first term, Obama increased the Indian Health Service budget by more than $800 million and steadily increased IHS funding by more than $1.2 billion, reaching $4.8 billion in total. Obama's second term began inauspiciously with sequestration imposed by Congress in 2013, but the Indian Affairs budget at Interior for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education nevertheless increased from approximately $2.3 billion to $2.8 billion before Obama left office, an increase of a half-billion dollars. These increases significantly outpaced inflation and produced real and significant gains for Indian country.

In addition to regular appropriations, Obama also included tribes in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) stimulus funding, and settled more than 100 lawsuits with Indian tribes, generating roughly $10 billion in funding for Indian country beyond ordinary appropriations.

If Trump's negotiation skills are as good as advertised, the Obama years will come to feel like the golden age for tribes. As commentator Mark Trahant has warned, cuts to the federal budget are inevitable in light of serious financial structural changes in the American economy. Baby boomers are contributing less and less to tax receipts and drawing more and more from Social Security and Medicare. White House priorities will determine which programs will be continued and which will wither.

What do Trump's proposed cuts tell us about the President's priorities?

First, the Trump Administration is running away from Indian education. Obama Cabinet Secretaries Sally Jewell (Interior) and Arne Duncan (Education) made Indian education programs a central focus and sought to address the horrendous physical condition of some Indian schools. President Trump's proposal would cut Indian education program funds by $64 million. And though President Trump has repeated a commitment to spending on infrastructure, his promises will ring hollow in Indian country, especially regarding Indian schools. While the Obama Administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars in ARRA stimulus in Indian country and made an important, though perhaps belated commitment to increased regular annual funding to school construction, Trump's enthusiasm for infrastructure does not extend to Indian country. Trump's budget cuts school construction funds by $58 million, for an annual total cut to Indian education of more than $120 million. The lesson here is that, if Trump ever delivers the proposed infrastructure stimulus bill that he repeatedly has promised, tribes will need to be diligent in lobbying the halls of Congress to be included.

President Trump is also proposing cuts to several programs that have been supported in past Republican administrations. For example, Trump would cut $21 million from Indian country law enforcement at the BIA and slash $30 million at the U.S. Department of Justice for Indian assistance. He would also end a $10 million DOJ tribal youth delinquency program and cut $27 million from tribal natural resources management programs.

Other cuts are more predictable. For example, in taking land into trust for tribes, President Obama may have spurred a backlash. Though tribes and the BIA now have a more than a half-million acres of new lands to manage, Trump seeks to slash $15 million from the real estate staff managing such lands. This will frustrate economic development by slowing approvals for leases and rights-of-ways. Trump would also slice $23 million from human services programs, including Indian child welfare.

Trump's first budget dispels any hopes that Trump has Nixonian ambitions for tribes. He takes aim at tribal self-determination and self-governance. Trump's cuts are focused disproportionately on Tribal Priority Allocation funds, which are the funds over which tribal governments have the most control. To increase tribal fiscal sovereignty and flexibility, tribal governments can redirect TPA funds to other valid budgetary purposes as needed. Trump's budget cuts roughly $55 million in TPA funds and contract support costs by $35 million. It cuts funding for tribal self-governance compacts by $5.4 million.


Trump's budget contains modest increases in one area of the BIA budget. Trump seeks an increase of $4 million for irrigation projects and $4.3 million for dams. But these increases will likely be met with skepticism by Indian country because this funding does not primarily benefit Indians. Most of the large irrigation and dam projects in Indian country began during the allotment era and were built to support both Indian farmers and the non-Indian settlers who settled the surplus lands. In Indian country, we all know how that turned out. Farming during the Dust Bowl did not work out so well. Few Indians became farmers and instead many lost their lands. Today, a majority of allotted and surplus lands are owned by non-Indian farmers and the so-called "Indian irrigation projects" primarily serve non-Indian farmers.

Of course, the irrigation projects were intended to be sustained by fees levied on those farmers, but the BIA was always politically outgunned by the farmers, so the taxpayers now fund these projects out of the Indians' portion of federal appropriations. Indeed, the largest irrigation project that actually serves an Indian tribe is the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project. To underscore the point that this funding is not to help Indians, President Trump has proposed a cut of $169,000 to NIIP's budget.

If Trump is effective in Congress, tribes will feel tremendous fiscal pain. It is now up to Congressional appropriators to protect tribes. Fortunately, Indian country has knowledgeable and fair appropriators in the House, such as Tom Cole (R-OK), Ken Calvert (R-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Mike Simpson (R-ID). In the Senate, it has Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Tom Udall (D-NM). These Congressional leaders will need to work very hard to out-negotiate Donald Trump and save tribal communities. Let's hope they succeed.

Kevin K. Washburn is a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law and former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at Interior from 2012 through 2015.