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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Trust reform costs put at $3B, thanks to Bush
Monday, June 13, 2005

The federal government has spent nearly $3 billion over the past decade to fix the broken Indian trust, according to an appropriations bill introduced on Friday.

The figure is significantly higher than the amount confirmed by Congress just three years ago. In an appropriations bill passed in 2002, members of the House said they provided more than $614 million to fund trust reform efforts at the Interior Department.

The following year, the amount was beefed up to more than $700 million. "These funds could have been better used to fund health and education programs in Indian Country or directed towards reforming the outdated trust systems in the department," the House Appropriations Committee wrote in a bill passed in 2003.

But thanks to the Bush administration, the costs of trust reform have exploded dramatically. With hundreds of millions going into historical accounting and other activities, the Senate Appropriations Committee came up with a new figure last week.

"Over the past decade, nearly $3,000,000,000 has been invested in management, reform, and improvement of Indian trust programs," the committee wrote in a report accompanying the Interior Department fiscal year 2006 bill. The Senate's version of the bill was introduced on Friday.

The increase is due to the administration's decision to beef up the Office of Special Trustee. Since President Bush took over the White House, its budget has grown from to $109 million in 2001 to a proposed $270 million in 2006, a whopping 147.7 percent increase.

Meanwhile, the White House has not sought significant increases for the Bureau of Indian Affairs since 2001. This year, in fact, a decrease of nearly $110 million was proposed.

The trend has not gone by without some objection. Tribal leaders point out that OST was designed, by law, to oversee but not implement trust reform. That has changed now that OST is in charge of probate, accounting, realty and a host of other projects.

"In the BIA budget, the costs of OST-BIA reorganization are effectively punishing tribes for the department's own trust mismanagement -- a double injury to individual and tribal trustees hurt by this mismanagement," National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall said in recent testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Key lawmakers agree with the assessment. "It is lamentable that the funding for an [historical] accounting appears to have come directly from programs that affect the daily lives of Indians," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee.

Lawmakers have reacted by trimming OST's budget. Both the House and the Senate cut the agency to $192 million instead of the $270 million sought by the White House.

The House and Senate also restored many of the cuts to the BIA programs. There are differences, however, which will have to be reconciled by a joint conference committee once the Senate passes its version of the bill. The House passed the budget by a vote of 329-89 on May 19.

The full text of the relevant portion of the Senate report is as follows:
Over the past decade, nearly $3,000,000,000 has been invested in management, reform, and improvement of Indian trust programs. Ongoing reforms and expenditures are highly dependent on court activity related to the ongoing Cobell v. Norton case and negotiations between the Department of the Interior, tribal governments, the plaintiffs and the courts.

Interior Appropriations:
H.R.2361 | H.Rept.109-80 | S.Report.109-80

FY 2006 Funding Levels:
Subcommittee Reports FY06 Interior Appropriations Bill (May 4, 2005) | Appropriations Subcommittee Reports FY 2006 Interior Spending Bill (June 7, 2005)

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Letter:
FY 2006 Views and Estimates (February 28, 2005)

Budget Documents:
DOI Budget in Brief | Trust Responsibilities | Tribal Communities | Bureau of Indian Affairs | Departmental Offices [includes Office of Special Trustee] | DOI [from White House]

Related Stories:
Bill restores Bush budget cuts to Indian programs (6/9)
Bill calls for tribal consultation on BIA budget (05/31)
House panel acts to restore Bush budget cuts (05/05)
Panel rejects President Bush's budget priorities (3/8)
Senator angles for better 'defense' on Bush budget (02/24)
Senators blast budget cuts to Indian programs (2/17)
BIA budget cut by $110M for fiscal year 2006 (2/8)
On trust, lawmakers take Bush officials at face value (6/25)
Norton offered settlement funds for IIM trust (6/20)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)
Appropriators question historical accounting plan (03/13)
Spending bill keeps provisions affecting Cobell (02/14)
Funding battle underlies trust obligations (7/19)
House bill cuts trust fund accounting (6/28)
Interior rebuffed on historical accounting (4/24)

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