President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation. Photo: Navajo Nation Washington Office

Tribes lose out with funding bill that includes money for Trump reorganization

A funding bill advancing on Capitol Hill is a win overall for Indian Country except for one major issue: a reorganization at the Department of the Interior that tribes have been told little to nothing about.

A slew of tribal leaders told key lawmakers last week that they have yet to be consulted about the Trump administration's plans. Some called on Congress to ensure Secretary Ryan Zinke can't spend any money on the controversial initiative until he reaches out on a government-to-government basis.

“First and foremost, you should know that we oppose the Department of the Interior’s reorganization unless there are meaningful and respectful tribal consultations, " President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation said at a hearing last Thursday. "We have not been consulted yet.”

"It's been more than a year since Zinke announced his reorganizational plan and not a single meeting has been held with the tribes," Cynthia Boone, a representative of the Osage Minerals Council from the Osage Nation, said a day earlier.

Despite the complaints, the fiscal year 2019 Interior appropriations bill allows the Trump administration to spend up to $17.5 million on the reorganization, a leading Democrat said at a markup this week. Of that amount, $900,000 will come from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a figure tribes weren't told about until it surfaced in a budget proposal.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Subcommittee Markup - FY 2019 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill - May 15, 2018

"Just last week, our subcommittee listened to the testimony of more than 80 tribes. Not one tribe supported the reorganization," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that writes Interior's funding bill.

"The overwhelming majority strongly opposed it, because it is not well thought out and it runs roughshod over our treaty obligation to conduct consultation," McCollum added before the bill was approved at the markup on Tuesday.

The subcommittee, though, hasn't been silent on the reorganization. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), the chairman of the panel, pressed Zinke on the Trump team's plans last month, noting that tribes "feel that they are not part of the process."

Placing the BIA into a new regional system -- 13 of them are under consideration by Zinke -- will have a significant impact, Calvert told the secretary. A map that has been circulated in the media and on Capitol Hill forces some tribes into new regions, requiring them to seek services from different offices to which they have no current relationship.

The Trump administration has yet to announce any consultations about the reorganization. And that map still hasn't been shown to tribes, months after it surfaced.

Yet Zinke has insisted that tribes will determine whether the regional model is applied to the BIA.

"The nations, they're sovereign," Zinke told Calvert's subcommittee on April 11. "We are beginning consultation, and whether or not they adopt this model is really up to them."

"I've always said that I believe the nations are sovereign and it's a partnership, it's a relationship," Zinke said. He quickly added: "I think it's to their advantage to join."

But just in case Zinke tries to move forward without consultation, the Appropriations committees in both the House and the Senate issued lengthy guidance to Interior as part of the #Omnibus spending bill that became law in March.

According to a report accompanying the law, federal agencies such as Interior must "not reallocate resources or reorganize activities except as provided herein or otherwise approved by the committees through the reprogramming process."

"This includes proposed reorganizations, especially those of significant national or regional importance, even without a change in funding," the committees wrote in another section.

House Committee on Appropriations on YouTube: Subcommittee Markup - FY 2019 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill

The directives, though, have done little to inspire confidence in Indian Country. Leaders of the Navajo Nation, for example, weren't consulted when the Trump administration ordered the director of regional office on the largest reservation in the country to move to Washington, D.C., last month.

Though the region's incoming director boasts more than 20 years of federal experience, she has not worked in the field, Indianz.Com first reported.

"The learning curve in Indian Country is a steep one," Rep. McCollum said during one of the tribal sessions last Wednesday. "When you have someone that's known and trusted and understands your culture, understands the geography, understands the needs, and then that person is removed it takes a long time to bring somebody else up to speed."

Robert Miguel, the chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community, was among the tribal leaders who have been asking Congress to restrict funding for the reorganization. He called Zinke's proposal "disappointing" last Wednesday.

"One of the goals of a reorganization of the department should be the improvement of delivery of federal services to tribes and improving the government-to-government relationship with tribes," he said. "The current proposed reorganization does not do that."

After hearing the fresh round of complaints, Rep. Calvert said he would some reaching out of his own.

"Next time I talk to the Secretary, I'm going to bring this up too," the chairman said last Thursday, the final day of the tribal sessions. "It's a common theme here, that there's not consulting with the tribes. I'll bring it up to him and say that he needs to do that."

Secretary of the Interior listens to leaders of the Oneida Nation during a visit to the tribe's homelands in Wisconsin on March 20, 2018. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Overall, the 2019 Interior appropriations bill includes $3.1 billion for the BIA, a figure that represents a complete rebuke to President Donald Trump. He sought to cut more than $450 million from the agency with his budget request.

The measure also provides $5.9 billion for the Indian Health Service. Together, the increases for the BIA and the IHS come in at $689 million above Trump's proposal, Calvert said at the markup on Tuesday.

Now that Calvert's subcommittee has approved the bill, the next step is consideration before the House Committee on Appropriations. Historically, that's occurred in June.

After that, the bill can then be moved to the floor of the House in hopes of passing it before the start of the fiscal year in October 1. If that doesn't happen, Congress will have to consider other mechanisms, such as continuing resolutions or even another omnibus, to keep the BIA, the IHS and other federal agencies up and running.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud on Capitol Hill

Two days in Washington, D.C., more than 80 tribal leaders. Listen to three sessions here. (The fourth is coming soon!)

House Committee on Appropriations Notice:
Subcommittee Markup - FY 2019 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill (May 15, 2018)

Relevant FY 2019 Documents:
Press Release: Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2019 Interior and Environment Bill | Draft Fiscal Year 2019 Interior and Environment Bill

#Omnibus FY 2018 Documents:
House Committee on Appropriations Press Release: Government-Wide Funding Legislation Released
Highlights: Fiscal Year 2018 Interior and Environment Bill
Bill Text - Division G | Bill Report - Division G
Rep. Nita Lowey statement on FY2018 Omnibus Appropriations Act

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