Mike Black, as the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, testifies at a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in North Dakota on April 21, 2017. Photo: U.S. Indian Affairs

'Acting' Trump administration officials testify about 'high risk' tribal programs

Nine months into the Trump administration and Indian Country still doesn't know who will be advocating for tribal interests at the federal level.

President Donald Trump was expected to nominate new leaders for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service by the end of the summer. But there's been no news out of the White House since lawmakers returned to work last week after their August break.

The inaction leaves both agencies in the hands of "acting" officials. In the case of the BIA, it's Mike Black, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who took on that role on January 20, the day Trump was inaugurated.

Over at the IHS, there's been two "acting" leaders since that day. Chris Buchanan, a citizen of the Seminole Nation, lasted through June and now Michael D. Weahkee, a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, is holding the title.

Despite the lack of permanence, Black and Weahkee are still the highest-ranking officials at their respective agencies. Both are testifying at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on Wednesday to discuss whether they are fixing long-standing problems identified by the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress.

Even though Trump has not nominated an Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, his team has filled two key leadership roles at the agency. John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, started work as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs last week. Gavin Clarkson, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, started serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development in June.

The situation at the IHS is more murky. As scrutiny of Indian health programs ramped up on Capitol Hill and in the media in the last couple of months, Congressional aides were told by the White House that a nominee for director -- possibly someone from outside of the agency -- would be announced before the BIA post. But there's been no movement from Washington.

“There's no question that it's critical to get full-time leadership at IHS,” Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service, said at a Senate hearing in June. Lack of accountability makes it harder to fix a system widely seen as broken, underfunded and mismanaged, he asserted.

The IHS isn't alone in dealing with leadership voids -- in the past, the BIA has gone for long stretches without a permanent Assistant Secretary. During the Bush administration, the agency was run by an "acting" official for nearly 18 months at one point and for nearly a year at a different point.

As the Obama era came to a close, the BIA lost its last official leader in January 2016. The agency was run by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, who at one point served as the "acting" Assistant Secretary, for the next full year, until the Trump team showed up.

In the past, the IHS director was seen as a more permanent fixture because federal law envisions the person to serve for a four-year term. The agency lost its last official leader in 2015, during the Obama administration, a void that continues to this day.

Wednesday's hearing on "high risk" tribal programs takes place immediately following a business meeting at 2:30pm Eastern. The witness list follows:
Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office, Washington, DC

Acting Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC

Acting Director, Indian Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD

Director, Bureau of Indian Education, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on “High Risk Indian Programs: Progress and Efforts in Addressing GAO's Recommendations” (September 13, 2017)

Government Accountability Office Report:
Improving Federal Management of Programs that Serve Tribes and Their Members (February 15, 2017)

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