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Daschle testimony on Indian affairs reorganization
THURSDAY, MAY 22, 2003

The following is the statement of Tom Daschle at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing on the Reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of the Special Trustee. May 21, 2003.

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for holding this hearing on the Secretary of Interior's plan to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee.

This hearing is long overdue. Frankly, it is a hearing I had hoped could have been held before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved the Secretary's reprogramming request, which they did late last year.

I don't make that statement to be critical, but rather to echo the concerns of my South Dakota tribal constituents who expressed to me their frustration upon learning that a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST) had been approved without a Congressional hearing or full tribal input. They had been operating under the understanding that they would be involved in the construction of a solution to the trust management problem, only to discover that the Department officials and Appropriations Committee staff cut an "under the radar deal" to move forward without their full partnership.

While Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branch officials were discussing different strategies for coming to closure on the trust management issue, one principle upon which all parties had seemingly agreed was that the trust problem, which affects tribal leaders and their members so significantly, must be resolved with the full involvement of the Native American community. I was, therefore, both surprised and disappointed to learn from South Dakota tribal leaders after the fact that, on December 4, the Department of Interior had sent a reprogramming request to Congress without the knowledge of tribal leadership.

I was also told that Deputy Secretary Steven Griles and other senior Interior Department officials did not even raise the reprogramming request at its two day meeting with the Trust Reform Task Force on December 16 and 17 until late on the second day. Adding insult to injury, I understand that neither the membership of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, nor the Senate leadership were informed that a reprogramming request had been received and approved by the Appropriations Committee.

Tribal leaders in my state believe strongly that the Department's plan moves in the wrong direction. Instead of integrating the trust and "non-trust" functions of the Department, it separates the functions even further.

In terms of process, they ask what happened to the "consultation" that was so trumpeted by Interior Department officials earlier in the year?

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice Chairman and members of the Committee, I acknowledge your sincere desire to solve the trust management problem in a way that ensures that stakeholders receive what is due to them in a timely manner. And I greatly appreciate the attention you are devoting to this matter. However, given the recent history of the trust reform debate, I have no credible answer to tribal leaders' lament that the Department appears more interested in affecting the reaction of the Court in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit than in considering the opinion of Indian Country.

Since the Department formally unveiled its reorganization proposal six months ago, numerous questions have been raised about exactly how this reorganization, which is currently being advanced administratively, will improve the present trust fund management and accounting procedures.

What is the role and responsibilities of the trust officers who will be dispatched throughout Indian Country, and how will these positions relate to the local and regional BIA offices?

Who has oversight over these positions, and what accountability mechanism is in place to monitor their performance?

Will Indian preference apply to any new positions that are created by the reorganization and the expansion of the Office of Special Trustee's responsibilities?

Why is the reorganization effort affecting the Office of Indian Education Programs when the court mandate affects only trust fund management reform?

Does the plan violate the BIA amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization statute?

This list of questions is long and incomplete. Suffice it to say that there is much more to be explained to my tribal constituents and to me than can be gleaned from the 18 pages of organizational boxes that the Department has provided to explain the rationale for their reorganization plan.

I think it is extremely important for this Committee, and indeed the full Senate, to reflect on two central facts about the Indian trust debate as they consider this proposed reorganization of the BIA and the OST.

First, residents of Indian Country have been victimized by persistent mismanagement of trust assets by the federal government for generations - through administrations of both political parties. Far too many families for far too long have been denied trust assets to which they are entitled because of federal mismanagement. And this situation has adversely affected their quality of life.

Second, frustration with the federal government's failure to come to grips with this problem has not only lead to litigation (Cobell v. Norton), it has also solidified the tribes' determination to be part of the solution to the problem. Effective trust management reform will remain an elusive goal if the tribes are not full participants in this exercise.

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice Chairman and members of the Committee, the tribes understand that the Interior and Treasury Departments, the BIA, and Special Trustee for American Indians must be their allies in the search for a solution, not independent actors balancing other agendas. The bottom line is that trust beneficiaries deserve trustees in whom they can have confidence to restore sound accounting principles and integrity to the federal government's management of trust assets.

Last year, Senator Tim Johnson and I worked with Senator John McCain on a bipartisan alternative to the controversial proposal announced by the Secretary Norton in November 2001 to establish a new "Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management" (BITAM) within the Department of the Interior. Our effort featured the establishment of a single line of authority within the Department of the Interior for trust management, trust standards, and the option of co-beneficiary management of trust assets, all principles I still believe make sense today.

Meanwhile, as BITAM drew a sharp negative reaction, Secretary Norton announced an aggressive outreach program designed to solicit input on trust reform from Indian Country. Regional meetings were held around the country with Indian leaders and affected stakeholders, and emotions cooled. Yet, abruptly, last Fall, it all came to a halt. Then, quietly, in mid-December, the phoenix rose from the ashes.

I clearly remember the resounding opposition expressed to me about BITAM a year ago, and the main elements of the case against that plan have been raised about the current reorganization scheme. The proposal this Committee is reviewing today appears to be a reincarnation of BITAM, so I am interested to hear the Department's explanation of the differences between the two approaches, in substance and in process.

In my opinion, this debate about the reorganization has been a distraction and a side-show from the more fundamental challenge of providing a full and fair accounting to Indian people, and ultimately payment of the money that is owed to them and the Tribes.

Now that the Department has been given authorization to proceed administratively with its reorganization plan, I hope the Department will submit to the Congress a legislative proposal on how to address the underlying, substantive problem that we have been wrestling with for far too long.

We still do not have a historical accounting, we still do not know if records exist, and we still do not know how much the United States of America owes to Indian people and to the Tribes. There has been no proposed mechanism to get to an ultimate solution of this trust debacle. The United States of America continues to fail Indian people every single day, and to compound the problem by its inaction.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice Chairman, and members of the Committee, we need to recognize the human dimension and consequences of trust mismanagement. The lack of an accounting and payment of what is owed prevents the Tribes from addressing the very real human needs that we are all so painfully aware of in Indian Country.

The bottom line is that the Tribes do not have the resources they need to adequately address health care, education, unemployment, infrastructure, and the full range of socio-economic needs. The issue is not simply boxes on an organizational chart, but lives that literally hang in the balance.

As you can see, I am thoroughly frustrated by this issue. The history of trust management has been a travesty and, without a concerted effort to address the issue, the future will not be any better. The United States has a fiduciary responsibility to Indian Country based on numerous treaty obligations. We must satisfy our obligations. We must work together to craft a solution to the underlying trust problem.

I look forward to working with all of my colleagues, the Administration, and representatives of Indian Country on this important challenge.

Thank you.

Today on Indianz.Com:
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