John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe seen in the background here at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, serves as the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Photo: Office of Public Affairs - Indian Affairs
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'Acting' Trump administration officials present Indian budget plans

The leadership void within the Trump administration is again on display as lawmakers consider the budgets for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

Though President Donald Trump announced nominations for both agencies last fall, both remain without Senate-confirmed leaders more than a year into his tenure. His BIA pick has yet to receive a confirmation hearing amid questions about her background and his IHS choice was forced out due to doubts about his record.

"This vacancy has created significant instability and negatively effects the already burdened IHS system," Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe said of the lack of a director at an agency charged with ensuring health care for more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.

So in place of permanent and more accountable leaders, two "acting" officials will present the BIA and IHS budgets to Congress on Tuesday morning. Both John Tahsuda, the acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, and Michael Weahkee, the acting director of the IHS, are testifying before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs about their fiscal year 2019 priorities.

"Despite budget increases for tribal programs during the previous Administration, in February 2017 the Government Accountability Office added Indian education, health, and energy programs to its biennial list of 'High Risk Areas' vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement," a hearing memo prepared by Republican staff states.

Michael D. Weahkee, a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, serves as the "acting" director of the Indian Health Service. Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Despite their temporary status, Tahsuda, who is a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, and Weahkee, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, are considered capable and effective stewards within Indian policy circles. Both have decades of experience, in and outside of federal and tribal governments.

Tara Sweeney, whom Trump nominated as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, also boasts a long history. She is well known for her advocacy of Alaska Native issues, having served on the board of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest tribal organization in Alaska, for more than a decade.

But her status as a shareholder and executive for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation, has tripped up her nomination. She cannot easily distance herself from an entity Congress itself set up through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

"To say that you can't be a Native Alaskan to represent Native Alaskans is unconscionable," Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who would be Sweeney's boss, National Congress of American Indians during its winter session in Washington, D.C., last month. "It's like saying the only people that can't represent the [tribal] nations are the nations. That's exactly opposite."

Trump has yet to announce a new director for the IHS. His first pick, Robert Weaver, who is a citizen of the Quapaw Tribe, was forced to withdraw from the process after news reports highlighted discrepancies in his work in the health fields.

“Regardless of what the press reports may say, I was forced out,” Weaver said in a letter after the White House abandoned him last month. “I was involuntarily withdrawn.”

Against the backdrop, the BIA is facing a budget cut of $453 million. Though lawmakers from both parties have said they won't accept major reductions, that request represents a whopping 15.2 percent decrease from current levels.

The IHS is seeing more of a brighter future. The Trump administration is seeking an increase of $413 million, though some of that is accounted by a shift in the way the $150 million Special Diabetes Program for Indians is treated within the budget.

The hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs takes place at 10:30am Eastern and will be webcast. The full witness list follows:

Mr. Doug Domenech
Assistant Secretary – Insular Affairs
U.S. Department of the Interior
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 (HHS)
Washington, DC

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing, “Policy Priorities for the Administration’s FY 2019 Budget for Indian Affairs and Insular Areas" (March 20, 2018)