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'An afterthought': Tribal consultation in doubt as Trump's reorganization rolls on

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt made his first appearance on Capitol Hill since being confirmed as the leader of the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country. Naturally, a controversial tribal issue came up.

In testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations on Tuesday, Bernhardt once again said the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education aren't being included in a reorganization at the Department of the Interior. Tribes opposed the restructuring, he noted.

"Let me be very, very clear," Bernhardt told the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. "We are not reorganizing, as part of the unified regions in any way, the BIA or BIE."

"They wanted out of it," he said, alluding to Indian Country's views..

But Bernhardt admitted he was unaware of ongoing efforts at the BIA that are being seen as a form of reorganization. Some tribes, for example, have been told that their local agency office in Arizona is being consolidated without their input, said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the chair of the subcommittee.

As Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt told the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C, on February 13, 2019, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education won't be included in a reorganization at the Department of Interior. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

"We're hearing from Indian tribes that there are various actions being taken that look and feel like an informal reorganization," McCollum said.

"There is great confusion on this committee now about what is going on with meaningful and direct tribal consultation," McCollum added. "We need to get to the bottom of this."

Bernhardt acknowledged the possibility that Interior is making personnel and organizational changes that are independent of the larger reorganization. However, he declined to offer any commitments when McCollum asked him to "stop the clock" on those kinds of changes in Indian Country.

"We want to have the ability to improve our organization, but that's different from moving people and reorganizing," Bernhardt said in response to McCollum's request. "I'll have to figure it out."

Bernhardt's remarks come a week after Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe discussed the confusion that arose when the Trump administration first announced the reorganization more than two years ago, as former Secretary Ryan Zinke took office. Details remained non-existent, he said, well into the outreach.

"When they came to the region, the Great Plains region, we were given a picture of a map," Frazier told the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations at a hearing on May 1. "That's all we were given."

"We weren't given any plans of the purpose, of how that change was needed, or how it was going to benefit our people," Frazier said.

Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe appears before a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 30, 2019. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

The confusion continues despite Bernhardt's commitment to exclude the BIA and the BIE from the larger reorganization, which involves placing all other agencies, bureaus and offices at Interior into a unified system of regions. A map of the 12 unified regions was "approved" on August 22, 2018, according to the department.

The approval of the map is significant because it occurred a day after the Great Plains tribal consultation took place in Rapid City, South Dakota. It's also a day before the final tribal consultation in Seattle, Washington.

"It's clear from the timeline that tribal consultation appears to be an afterthought to the reorganization," McCollum said.

McCollum attributed the doubts to the Trump administration's lack of clarity. Other officials at Interior, for example, have presented information that appears to contradict its duty to consult with tribes on a government-to-government basis.

At last week's hearing, Scott Cameron, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget at Interior, insisted that the department engaged in "extensive tribal consultation, both formal and informal." Yet he also confirmed that the "unified regions map was finalized on August 22, 2018," -- all while the tribal consultation process was supposedly still ongoing.

"When we start hearing from the tribes that people are being moved around, they aren't being consulted, it goes into direct conflict to everything that we have heard from people from the agencies in front of us," McCollum said on Tuesday. "We need to clear this up quickly. Time is of the essence."

McCollum's view of the situation is significant because her subcommittee writes Interior's funding bill so she plays a major role in determining how much money the Trump administration gets for the reorganization. Some $18 million has been appropriated for fiscal year 2019. The fiscal year 2020 budget requests another $28 million for the initiative.

Despite those requests, Bernhardt acknowledged that Interior has yet to come up with a "detailed plan" for the reorganization.

"I think you can say you don't have a detailed plan," Bernhardt said after McCollum said her subcommittee has yet to receive such a document.

Bernhardt instead characterized the requests for money as a "spend plan." He said he brought a copy of that document to the hearing on Tuesday to disseminate to the subcommittee.

"I know full well that we need to have a plan that will pass muster for you," he said.

Separately, Bernhardt has promised to work with McCollum on any so-called "reprogramming" requests. These are typically submitted to Congress when a federal agency wants to shift money that was appropriated for one purpose to another.

Asserting her role in the process, which also includes other Congressional committees of importance, McCollum said: "There is nothing that has been agreed upon. I just want to clear [that] for the record."

"My view is that I am committed to following the reprogramming guidelines to the 'T,'" Bernhardt responded.

"We'll work on that," McCollum said. "Intentions are good but actions speak even louder."

House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies: FY20 Budget, Department of the Interior

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