The Bureau of Indian Affairs participated in a hiring event to fill wildland fire positions within the Department of the Interior in Bakersfield, California, on February 22-23, 2020. Photo: USDOI

Lawmakers look at Trump's Indian Country budget request

Lawmakers from two key Congressional committees will be examining the Trump administration's fiscal year 2021 budget request for the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations, controlled by Republicans, is hearing from Secretary David Bernhardt on Wednesday morning. At the same time, another official from the department will be testifying before the House Committee on Natural Resources, run by Democrats.

Bernhardt and Susan Combs, the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, are going to explain why President Donald Trump is seeking $12.8 billion for Interior, representing a decrease of more than $2.4 billion from current levels. Within that amount, Indian Country programs would take a hit.

"Interior’s FY2021 budget is about investing in our people and our public lands and waters," Combs told reporters on February 10 as the request was released. "We uphold trust responsibilities to 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives."

The fiscal year 2021 request for the Bureau of Indian Affairs is nearly $1.9 billion, representing a cut of about $189 million from 2020 levels. When compared to 2019, the BIA is losing far more than that -- nearly $1.3 billion.

The decrease, however, can be explained by the fact that the Bureau of Indian Education is now a separate item in the budget. For fiscal year 2021, Trump is seeking about $945 million for agency, but even that represents a cut of nearly $247 million from 2020 levels.

Combined, the BIA and BIE request comes to about $2.8 billion. That's still $300 million lower than the amount Congress appropriated for the agencies in 2019.

Another change in the budget affects the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, the agency in charge of trust reform at Interior. The Trump administration is proposing a new Bureau of Trust Funds Administration to take over the functions of OST, with the eventual

"BTFA will become the new home for the ongoing essential functions currently performed by OST," the fiscal year 2021 budget request reads. Some $147 million -- the same as 2020 and nearly the same as 2019 -- are being sought for the new entity.

Historically, members of Congress from both parties have worked to increase funding for Indian Country programs at Interior. The budget request from the executive branch is merely seen as a starting point.

Fiscal year 2021 begins on October 1. But Congress has been unable to enact a standalone Interior appropriations bill so lawmakers have had to resort to other methods to keep the federal government up and running.

The tactic doesn't always work. Indian Country suffered through a record 35-day shutdown last year before an agreement could be reached in Washington, D.C.

"The 2019 government shutdown – the longest in history – is the latest example of an incompetent federal budget process jeopardizing tribal nations’ ability to provide vital services to our citizens, from law enforcement to healthcare to emergency response," National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp said in the State of Indian Nations, delivered on the same day the budget was released. "And just once in the last 22 years has Congress passed a fiscal budget on time, an inexcusable sign of a broken system."

Congresional Committee Notices
Senate Committee on Appropriations: Review of the FY2021 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of the Interior (March 4, 2020)
House Committee on Natural Resources: Examining the Department of the Interior’s Spending Priorities and the President’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Proposal (March 4, 2020)

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines