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Bush administration turns to Congress on trust

The Bush administration is again finding a sympathetic ear in members of Congress as it seeks to limit the federal government's responsibilities to individual Indians.

At a House hearing last month, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles outlined how the Department of Interior will act. Initiatives include the expansion of a land consolidation program that pays Indian beneficiaries for small land ownership interests but also deprives them of the right to an historical accounting.

To be operated with $21 million in fiscal year 2004 out of an office in Minneapolis, the national program is based on a pilot that involved members of tribes in the Great Lakes. Griles said the pilot resulted in the successful buyout of 40,000 interests but that the increasing fractionation of Indian lands means little progress is being made.

"We're getting further behind," he said. "We're not able to keep up."

The consolidation program can only go so far, though, and Griles said there are other efforts that require Congressional action. He cited the existence of more than 19,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts with low-dollar balances that the department is required, as a trustee, to maintain.

"We have no administrative or legal way to close these accounts," he told the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee.

The cost to operate the accounts -- whose aggregate balance is a little over $5,000 -- is more than they are worth, Griles noted. The remarks prompted visible concern to the lawmakers, who watch over every penny of the government's spending.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the panel's ranking member, asked simply: "How much?" Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Penn.) labeled the low-dollar accounts a "nuisance" but then quickly corrected himself and said they were merely "insignificant." And Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) mentioned the word most feared in Indian Country -- "termination" -- as he wondered out loud how to close them.

"What would you recommend," Nethercutt asked, "as a way, a legislative method, of getting rid of those cases, and I don't mean that in a negative sense."

Griles' response was the same as the one he gave to the subcommittee a year earlier: the department was willing to work with the lawmakers on the issue.

Dennis Gingold, an attorney representing more than 500,000 IIM account holders in a landmark class action, warned of the consequences. "If they close an account, that would probably be in violation of their trust duties," he said.

The administration's relationship with the House subcommittee became a subject of heavy debate last summer when the lawmakers wrote an appropriations bill that limited an historical accounting of the IIM trust. Griles vehemently denied the department's involvement as Dicks and former Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.), who retired last year, unsuccessfully defended the provision.

Faced with an onslaught by members of the Congressional Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of 100 lawmakers, Dicks and Skeen lost a 281 to 144 vote in July that stripped the bill of the language.

But other provisions remained, including one that allows the department to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private attorneys hired by government officials. Griles thanked the subcommittee for the favor and Dicks said it would again be included in this year's appropriations act.

The fruits of the Bush administration's passive lobbying won't be known until the bill surfaces out of the subcommittee later this summer. Congress tries to pass the appropriations acts before the fiscal year starts in October of each calendar year. The 2003 budget, however, didn't clear until February of this year.

Relevant Links:
House Appropriations Committee - http://www.house.gov/appropriations
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Judge authorizes release of trust fund report (03/26)
Appropriators question historical accounting plan (03/13)
On accounting, Norton find her magic date (03/12)
Pressure stirs to settle trust fund lawsuit (02/27)
Spending bill keeps provisions affecting Cobell (02/14)
Trust programs see historic increase (2/4)
Standards guide reform effort (1/8)
What happened to all the land? (1/8)
Norton to fight IIM accounting (1/7)
Norton won't account for assets (1/6)
Lamberth slams claimed accounting (12/23)
Tribes opposing trust fund settlement bill (11/13)
Judge rejects Norton's 'absurd' accounting claim (09/23)
Funding battle underlies trust obligations (7/19)
Interior budget bill generates strong debate (7/17)
Opposition to trust fund bill mounts (7/15)
Norton delivers accounting plan (7/5)
House bill cuts trust fund accounting (6/28)

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