President Donald Trump speaks at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., on April 26, 2017. On the left is Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. On the right is Vice President Mike Pence. Photo: U.S. DOI
Donald Trump is wrong about federal funding for Indian programs, according to one of his own nominees.
Trump drew alarms earlier this month when he described -- incorrectly -- a tribal housing program as one based on "race." His so-called signing statement, which was attached to a $1 trillion spending bill, did not make any mention of the federal trust and treaty responsibility.
But David Bernhardt, whom Trump has nominated to serve as the second-in-command at
the Department of the Interior, is in a position to know better. As an attorney and former Bush administration official with direct experience in Indian law and policy, he said the issue has long been settled by the courts.
"I'm really at a loss to speak to that particular matter," Bernhardt said during his confirmation hearing to serve as Deputy Secretary of the Interior on Thursday. He told Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) that he hadn't actually seen the signing statement in question.
But he quickly explained that Congress is in no danger of violating the U.S. Constitution by passing laws that benefit Indian Country. Tribal housing programs, for example, have been on the books for "quite a while," he said.
"I'd say that the courts have sustained a variety of programs that have been lawfully enacted,"
Bernhardt told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"I take the trust responsibility seriously," Bernhardt said later during the hearing.
Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: David Bernhardt Confirmation Hearing May 18, 2017
Bernhardt's comments fall in line with those of his potential boss. Secretary Ryan Zinke, who worked on tribal issues when he served in the U.S. House, has repeatedly vowed to respect tribal sovereignty.
Regarding energy development, for example, Zinke said his "job is to make sure that if you want to, to get out of your way so you can do it, to be helpful, to be the advocate in your corner, so sovereignty is a word that has meaning."
"And consultation is not a last minute idea," Zinke said at the National Tribal Energy Summit earlier this month.
But by merely raising doubts about the legality of tribal programs, Trump is embracing a tactic that has long been used by anti-Indian organizations, conservative groups and some Republican lawmakers to prevent Congress from taking action. During the presidency of George W. Bush, for instance, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was held up for nearly a decade because questions about "race" clouded the debate.
It's a message that is clearly troublesome for tribal leaders. With agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and
the Indian Health Service already suffering from underfunding, they fear that Trump's words will be used against them as lawmakers draft future funding bills.
President Donald Trump's nominee for Deputy Secretary of the Interior, is
described as an avid hunter. Photo: U.S.
"Despite making gradual progress in its economic development efforts, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe experiences an overwhelming level of 'unmet need,'" Lisa White Pipe, a council member for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said on Wednesday during a hearing on Indian Country's priorities for future funding bills.
"However, this is not 'unmet need' -- it is unmet treaty obligations," White Pipe continued in her testimony to the House Appropriations Committee. "The federal government has a fiduciary trust responsibility under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 to provide adequate resources to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe."
Should Bernhardt be confirmed by the Senate, he would be responsible for upholding those kinds of responsibilities. He touted an endorsement from the Southern Ute Tribe, whose reservation is based in his home state of Colorado, as evidence of his commitment to work with Indian Country.
"I take the consultation requirement seriously," Bernhardt said.
And if Bernhardt is confirmed, he would only be the second member of Interior's top leadership team with Senate approval. Zinke, who joined the department in early March, has been working with an "acting" slate of officials for more than two months now.
"I look forward to moving your name quickly through the confirmation process," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "I think Secretary Zinke has a big job in front of him and he needs a team and I think that you can be a valuable asset to that team."
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Notice:
hearing of Mr. David Bernhardt of Virginia to be Deputy Secretary of the
Interior (May 18, 2017)
Country braces for worst with Trump's planned budget cuts (May 18, 2017)
on high-risk tribal programs highlights void in leadership (May 15, 2017)
looms in Secretary Zinke's review of Bears Ears and other monuments (May 15,
hearing scheduled for top Interior Department official (May 12, 2017)
Zinke vows support for sovereignty after 'off-ramp' comments about trust
lands (May 9, 2017)
injects 'race' into debate with questions about Indian funding (May 8,
Native group challenges President Trump and Secretary Zinke on Arctic
drilling (May 4, 2017)
vow fight in effort to protect Bears Ears National Monument (May 3,
Zinke advocates 'off-ramp' for taking lands out of trust (May 3, 2017)
encounter silence from Secretary Zinke in Bears Ears review (May 2,
Tribe demands 'voice' as Donald Trump orders review of Bears Ears monument
(April 28, 2017)
Zinke lacks leadership team more than a month into job (April 27, 2017)
singles out new Bears Ears monument as an 'abuse' of government's power
(April 26, 2017)
Zinke committed to addressing 'heart-breaking' crimes against Native women and
girls (April 18, 2017)
Department pulls back rule designed to maximize Indian coal revenues (April
Zinke seeks tribal representatives for royalty committee (March 31,
buy-back program on path to run out of funds under Trump (March 30,
Zinke confirms role in talking to tribes about unwanted border wall (March
Zinke promotes budget cut as a 'saving' for taxpayers (March 16, 2017)
Trump brings bad news to Indian Country with first budget (March 16,
Zinke vows to improve tribal consultation at Interior Department (March 9,
Secretary Zinke focuses on tribes in first Capitol Hill appearance (March 6,
Interior Secretary Zinke confirms rumors of reorganization (March 3,
confirms Ryan Zinke as new leader of Interior Department (March 1, 2017)