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Funding bill for Indian Country clears House for first time in years






Utah Dine Bikeyah Board Chairman Willie Grayeyes, left, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe council member Malcolm Lehi ride horses at Bears Ears in Utah. A provision in H.R.5538, the fiscal year 2017 Interior appropriations act, seeks to prevent President Barack Obama from designating the land as a national monument despite widespread support from tribes in the Southwest. Photo from UDB / Facebook

For the first time since the dawn of the Obama era, a stand-alone funding bill for Indian Country programs is gaining traction on Capitol Hill.

By a vote of 231 to 196, the House approved H.R.5538, the fiscal year 2017 Interior appropriations bill on Thursday afternoon. While the roll call was hardly bipartisan -- most Democrats were against it due to funding restrictions -- passage marks a significant milestone for the chamber.

The last time the House passed a stand-alone Interior bill that eventually became law was in 2009. Since then, Republicans have been fighting with Democrats, with President Barack Obama and even amongst themselves and have repeatedly failed to fund the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service on time.

The results have at times been disastrous for Indian Country. Sequestration led to big cuts for tribes across the nation and analysts like Mark Trahant have argued that the BIA and the IHS continue to suffer under Republican-imposed restrictions on federal spending levels.

Those issues were at play as lawmakers drafted and debated H.R.5538. While the bill funds the BIA and the IHS at levels higher than those found in last year's omnibus appropriations, it falls short of the larger amounts requested by Obama.

The BIA is funded at $2.9 billion, which represents an increase of $72 million from the fiscal year 2016 level. Obama, on the other hand, had sought an increase of about $137 million.

Discretionary funding for the IHS comes in at $5.1 billion, an increase of $271 million from the 2016 level. In contrast,
Obama proposed an increase of about $377 million.

Elsewhere in the package are drastic cuts. The biggest target is the Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission and programs are crucial to tribes dealing with climate change, water quality and other issues.

"While I support some elements of the bill — including robust funding for programs important to Native Americans and support for our national parks as they celebrate their centennial — I was disappointed to see just how bad Republicans made this bill on the floor by further chopping away at EPA funding and unraveling even more environmental protections," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), who is the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that controls Indian funding, said in a press release.

McCollum and other Democrats also questioned the inclusion of numerous policy riders that punish the Obama administration for its aggressive regulatory agenda. One bars the BIA from implementing the Part 83 reforms to the federal recognition process, a move that could force tribal groups to wait even longer for decisions on their petitions.

Another provision prevents the Bureau of Land Management from regulating hydraulic fracturing in Indian Country. The amendment was added to H.R.5538 on Wednesday at the request of a Republican lawmaker.

A third seeks to prevent Obama from exercising his authority to designate the 1.9 million acres of ancestral and sacred sites in Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument. Tribes from the Southwest have united in seeking protections for the land but Republicans in the state are trying to block the move.

The harsh language prompted the White House to issue a veto threat against H.R.5538. A statement of administration policy cites a slew of problems with provisions affecting Indian Country, energy and the environment.

"The funding levels in the bill would significantly hamper investments that reduce future costs to taxpayers by facilitating increased energy development, ensuring adequate levels of cybersecurity, and maintaining operations, facilities and infrastructure in national parks, refuges, forests, public lands, and Indian Country," the statement reads.

The dissent poses problems as the Senate considers its version of the Interior bill. S.3068 includes similar cuts to the overall funding level while providing for some increases at the BIA and the IHS.

Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017, Documents:
H.R.5538 on Congress.gov | H. Rept. 114-632

House Appropriations Committee Documents:
Press Release July 14, 2016 | Press Release June 15, 2016 | Press Release May 24, 2016

House Rules Committee Documents:
H.R.5538 | Rule | H.Res.820 | H. Rept. 114-683 [Includes list of amendments offered]

FY2017 Interior Department Budget Documents:
Budget in Brief | Strengthening Tribal Nations and Insular Communities | Indian Affairs | DOI Fact Sheet

FY2017 Indian Health Service Budget Documents:
Budget Request | Budget Justification | HHS Budget In Brief

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