Jean Carol Hovland was confirmed as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans on June 21, 2018. Photo: South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations

Senate confirms Indian nominee without so much as a confirmation hearing

In what appears to be a first in the modern era, the Senate has confirmed one of the Trump administration's Indian policy nominees without so much as a confirmation hearing.

By a voice vote on Thursday, the chamber approved Jean Carol Hovland, a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, to serve as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans. The action fills a post that has been vacant for nearly two years.

“The Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans is instrumental in promoting tribal self-determination and leading key programs to foster economic and social development opportunities in Native American communities,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said on Thursday.

“Ms. Hovland will bring efficient management to the agency and will be a strong leader and advocate for children, families and communities throughout Indian Country," Hoeven added. "I am encouraged that the Senate has moved expeditiously to approve her nomination.”

The chamber indeed moved quickly. President Donald Trump nominated Hovland to the post just four months ago.

And, in an unusual development, Hoeven's panel never held a confirmation hearing for Hovland. Every Indian policy nominee in the Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations had to go before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for a routine grilling about their background and their beliefs.

That means Hovland, who is virtually unknown outside of tribal circles in South Dakota, never got a chance to share her priorities and policy goals for the Administration for Native Americans, a key agency at the Department of Health and Human Services that deals with programs like Native language preservation, economic development and Native youth empowerment.

But her former boss on Capitol Hill says tribes have nothing to worry about. Hovland worked for Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) for more than a decade on Indian issues.

"Indian Country doesn't have a stronger advocate than Jeannie Hovland, a former long-time member of my staff," Thune wrote in a post on Twitter after her nomination was approved.

Hovland now bears the unique distinction of being the only one of President Trump's Indian policy nominees to win confirmation in the Senate. Her potential colleagues have faced much rockier roads.

The nomination of Robert Weaver to serve as the director of the Indian Health Service was the first out of the gate last October. But he never got a confirmation hearing amid questions about his qualifications to lead an agency that's responsible for delivering health care to more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Those doubts eventually derailed his chances. The White House abandoned him in February without so much as an explanation.

“Regardless of what the press reports may say, I was forced out,” Weaver told tribal leaders at the time. “I was involuntarily withdrawn.”

President Trump has yet to nominate someone else as IHS director, a post that has been vacant for more than three years.

Weaver, meanwhile, has set his sights on a different job. He's seeking to lead the Quapaw Tribe and is running against longtime Chairman John Berrey, who had supported him for the IHS post. The election is set for July 28.

From left: Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Tara Sweeney, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) exchange greetings as the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took up Sweeney's nomination to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs on May 9, 2018. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) can be seen in the background to the left. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Trump's nominee to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs hasn't had it easy either. Tara Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Alaska, finally landed a confirmation hearing in May, following months of delays linked to her background as an executive for an Alaska Native corporation.

Tribal leaders have called on the Senate to move quickly on Sweeney after the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved her nomination on June 6. But key Democrats aren't ready to support her without stronger -- and written -- assurances about her pledge to recuse herself from matters affecting Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, her employer and the firm in which she holds shares.

Arctic Slope stands to benefit financially from the Trump administration's push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to energy development. Though Sweeney has said she won't seek a "waiver" in the future from her recusal, Democrats believe her answers on the issue hasn't been clear enough.

That means Sweeney may not get a quick and easy voice vote like Hovland, and she might not even be able to proceed with unanimous consent either. Of the 12 Assistant Secretary nominees since 1977, all but one was approved by either a voice vote or unanimous consent.

"I think that highlights the bipartisan nature that the Senate has routinely enjoyed when it comes to supporting these leadership positions for Indian Country," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is one of Sweeney's biggest champions.

Hovland, in contrast, was placed on the Senate's "privileged nomination section" right after she was announced in February, according to chamber records. That means she was able to take advantage of "expedited" consideration.

And unlike Sweeney, who has said she hasn't been in the loop in Washington, Hovland has already made inroads in the executive branch. She recently left Thune's office and has been serving as a "senior advisor" to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, that unfilled political post at the Department of the Interior.

According to calendars posted by the department, she has been participating in key meetings with other political officials as far back as February, when she was nominated to the HHS post.

Though Hovland is the Trump administration's only Senate confirmed Indian policy nominee at this point, she is not the only tribal citizen on the presidential team. R. Trent Shores, who hails the Choctaw Nation, was confirmed as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Oklahoma last September.

Tribal citizens have been tapped for other political jobs in Washington, though their numbers are far and few in between when compared to prior presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat alike. Kiowa citizen John Tahsuda, for example, has been serving as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs since last September. The position did not require Senate confirmation.

Jean Hovland in Action: Photos shared on Facebook show Jean Hovland, the Trump administration's pick to lead the Administration for Native Americans. At bottom left, she poses with Cecilia Fire Thunder, an Oglala Sioux leader who testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 16, 2018.

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