It’s a tale as old as time: The federal government wants to reform the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to better serve both American Indians and taxpayers.
There have been numerous hearings, both in the Senate and in the House, over many decades that have explored plans that would combine, create and eliminate programs; shuffle and/or fire employees; increase and/or decrease spending, create new offices; reduce office space; reduce/increase paternalism; and even allow tribes to have a real role in the leadership.
A few years back, U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-AK), emeritus chair of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, went so far as to say in an ICMN interview that to reduce bureaucracy at the BIA, the head of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior should be elevated to a Cabinet-level position.
“I have suggested before to other presidents that there should be a Secretary of Indian Affairs sitting at the president’s table so that they can not only speak, but also make decisions, rather than going through the other agencies,” Young told ICMN. “With all due respect to BIA—forget who’s in charge of it—they’ve got a job, but they’re not producing anything. There’s no drive to become more helpful to tribes.”
Young’s thought was that elevating Indian affairs would not create more bureaucracy; rather, “you don’t have to fight all your so-called friends in the same department” for limited resources. Plus, he said, doing away with the BIA altogether would be a bad idea, since an underlying structure is sorely needed for Indian affairs within the U.S. government.
The list of ideas for improving the BIA goes on and on. Some measures have been implemented, especially regarding trust reform in the Obama years, but most often, little to nothing has happened on multiple fronts, especially involving Indian education. Reform legislation has stalled multiple times, bureaucrats of different political stripes have worked to undo each other’s handiwork, and time has just kept ticking on.
One constant: funding has been perennially reduced for the agency in recent years, and the Trump White House continues that trend in its recent budget proposal, with only $2.5 billion designated toward Indian affairs—a reduction of $370 million for the BIA and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) alone. Yet, at the same time, there are more federally recognized tribes (567), all with divergent needs, than ever before.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, with his literal spurs and cowboy hat and horse, has now been charged by his boss, President Donald Trump, to make reform happen once again and with less money than ever, accounting for inflation.
On March 13, Trump signed an executive order entitled “A Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” and he has since directed the Office of Management and Budget “to propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies...components of agencies, and agency programs.”
Could that be what Trump wants Zinke to do at the BIA? No one at the White House is saying that, but they aren’t saying much of anything on Indian affairs, despite repeated requests for comment. What is known is that Trump’s executive order does not mention consultation with the American Indian and Alaska Native communities, or consent by them to implement any changes to Indian-focused programs.
Zinke, meanwhile, recently said that, “the reorganization is going to be bold” at Interior, since the last time the department has undergone reorganization was nearly a century ago.
“President Trump promised the American people he would cut wasteful spending and make the government work for the taxpayer again, and that’s exactly what this budget does,” Zinke said May 23 in materials released alongside Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget. “Being from the West, I’ve seen how years of bloated bureaucracy and D.C.-centric policies hurt our rural communities. The president’s budget saves taxpayers by focusing program spending, shrinking bureaucracy, and empowering the front lines.”
BIA won't have much choice but to get smaller, according to Interior's own analysis, which indicates that the $370 million reduction under Trump’s proposal would result in the loss of 241 staff members and probably some Indian programs, too. The structure itself will necessarily retract, even if Zinke doesn’t do another thing. What remains to be seen is how what remains will be reorganized.
Driving some renewed venom against the BIA is the recently released Government Accountability Office's (GAO) High Risk Report for 2017 that captured how poorly BIE schools and other Indian-focused programs are performing under BIA oversight. An entire Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on May 17 was driven by failures outlined in the report.
Melissa Emrey-Arras, director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues for the GAO, listed in her testimony a litany of malfeasance in three key areas in Indian country. These included several instances of misused BIE funds, inadequate oversight of health care facilities by IHS, and the mismanagement of Indian country energy resources by the BIA, as well as a failure to process, track, or review program data to evaluate its own programs.
Interior officials responded by saying that they see efficiencies coming “through partnering with tribes, landowners and federal partners to streamline the probate process.” Some interpret this as reinventing tribes in the lower 48 states as corporations, or taking tribal land out of trust, which is worrying to many. Others see efficiencies coming from eliminating the BIA altogether and putting its individual components (education, energy, justice, etc.) under special offices within federal departments and agencies already responsible for those functions outside of Indian country—and which is already being done in some cases, resulting in duplication of effort and, as in the case of the Indian Health Service, still poor results in many instances. This gets rid of the BIA bureaucracy which has generated horror stories, but might lose the focus that BIA brings to Indian country issues themselves.
No one will know what Zinke’s proposed BIA reorganization will look like until 180 days after Interior has conducted its own departmental review. The resulting plan for reorganization will recommend which agencies to eliminate or merge, whether agency functions should be operated by the federal, state, or local government, or perhaps by the private sector, and whether the costs of the programs justify their existence.
Until then, tribal leaders and citizens might want to be in touch with Zinke himself.
D.C. Bureau Chief Rob Capriccioso contributed to this report.