John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Trump administration. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Trump team pushes Senate to move on nominations at Department of the Interior

The Trump administration is sending a not-so-subtle message to the Senate about the lack of confirmed officials at the Department of the Interior.

In coordinated messages on Wednesday, two representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs drew attention to the leadership void at the department. So far, only two nominees -- Secretary Ryan Zinke and Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt -- are in place.

"Right now, several our our nominees for leadership positions are waiting to be confirmed in the Senate and it is hampering our ability to do the people's work," Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, said at a hearing in the House. "Getting our full team confirmed and in place will help us better address the major issues our nation faces today, especially in Indian Country."

"Staffing the executive branch is the joint responsibility of the president and the Senate," Brian Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who was just designated as the director of the BIA, said at a hearing on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. "We hope the Senate will hold up its end of the bargain as we look forward to our leaders moving through the pipeline and into the department."

The lack of confirmed nominees at the department is highly unusual and unprecedented. By this time in their first terms in office, former presidents Barack Obama, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, a Republican, had their Interior leadership teams in place.

"The Trump administration, okay, some people are frustrated," Ernie Stevens Jr., a citizen of the Oneida Nation and the long-time chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association said last week in describing the general state of affairs at Interior in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump has blamed Democrats in the Senate for the holdup. The minority party has indeed slowed down the process as it looks closer at the records of the people nominated for high-ranking jobs across the government.

But Trump has been moving slowly as well. His announcement of Bernhardt as Deputy Secretary, for example, didn't come until his 99th day in office.

Still, some of the timing can be attributed to delays in the cumbersome vetting process. Zinke, who took office in early March, indicated as far back as June that someone had already been selected for the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs position but the official word didn't come until last week.

"I think the tribes are going to be thrilled," Zinke said at a hearing on June 22.

Tribes have indeed been pleased by the October 16 announcement of Tara Sweeney, a well-known Alaska Native executive, for the job. But, officially, it took another week before the White House sent her nomination to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, where Rice made his comments on Wednesday.

The committee typically acts swiftly on nominations, regardless of party, but Trump's delay in naming an Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, as well as a director for the Indian Health Service, has impacted its work. Around the same time Zinke offered his prognosis in June, aides on the panel were told by the White House to expect announcements for both positions before the end of the summer. They were ready to schedule confirmation hearings in short order, one aide said.

But nothing came out of the White House before the Senate went into its regularly scheduled break in August, depriving any nominee of a chance for speedy action. And while lawmakers are back at work, the Committee on Indian Affairs is one of the busiest on Capitol Hill, so neither Sweeney nor Robert Weaver, a citizen of the Quapaw Tribe who has been tapped for the IHS job, have been worked into the pipeline yet.

And yet again, there was a hiccup attributed to Trump's White House. While the announcement about Weaver came on a Friday afternoon earlier this month, his nomination wasn't sent to the committee until Monday, the same day as Sweeney's.

Sweeney's roll-out was unusual too. Even though it came on the opening day of the National Congress of American Indians 74th annual convention in Wisconsin last week, the White House did not inform Interior in advance.

As a result, Tahsuda, who had spent the entire day listening to, meeting with and addressing tribal leaders in Milwaukee, was deprived of the opportunity to make a big announcement.

Other Interior officials who were at NCAI in were in the dark as well until Alaska's Congressional delegation spilled the beans later on Monday. But their announcement was linked to Alaska's news cycle -- the state is three hours behind Wisconsin -- so by time those officials found out, the midnight hour was quickly approaching in Milwaukee. Interior didn't put out a press release about Sweeney until the following day.

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