Funding battle underlies trust obligations
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FRIDAY, JULY 19, 2002

Despite a successful rally against limitations contained in a Department of Interior spending bill, lawmakers who control the federal government's purse strings seem unwilling to pay for resolution of the Indian trust fund debacle.

Reps. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) inserted language -- approved by the Bush administration -- in the Interior's fiscal year 2003 budget that limited an accounting owed to more than 500,000 American Indians. The provision was necessary, argued the retiring chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, in order to help Indian Country.

"We are faced with a very tough problem and there are some who may not realize that this is already hurting all of the other tribes because this money comes out of the Interior budget and is not available for other programs," Dicks said on the House floor this week.

The language would have provided just $15 million for an accounting going back as far as 1985. The Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust dates to 1887 but lawmakers balked at the sizeable project.

"If we do not put a bracket on it, we are looking at $2.4 billion," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), referring to the Bush administration's costly, but unreliable, estimate of a full accounting.

Dicks and colleagues also insisted that the revised effort would form the basis for a resolution to the Cobell v. Norton class action, a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Indian beneficiaries. Yet at the same time, they argued that paying for a settlement would hurt the entire nation.

"All the programs of the Department of the Interior would have to be taxed" if Cobell were settled, said Dicks, referring a separate case affecting Navajo beneficiaries in New Mexico.

The contradictions characterized much of the two-day debate on the issue as Skeen and Dicks fought back numerous critics. They eventually lost by a resounding 281 to 144 vote on Wednesday.

But the battle over funding is definitely not over and will continue to guide the government's responsibilities to tribes and individual Indians, a Bureau of Indian Affairs official said. Dan DuBray, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb's communications aide, said trust reform -- such as the historical accounting -- is "limited to what resources are available."

It's not as if Skeen and Dicks have been tight with money so far. Since 1994, their committee has approved more than $700 million for trust efforts.

With little progress to show for the expenditures, however, they are clearly upset with repeated failures. On the floor, Kingston rattled off a list of multi-million dollar projects, including a $40 million trust accounting software system the Bush administration has shelved.

Whatever the case, just don't blame Indian Country for the wrongdoing, asserted Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney representing the Cobell plaintiffs. "We don't believe that a scenario where you rob Peter to pay Paul is right," he said.

"Indians get mismanaged, so you pay them by gutting their programs?" he said. "Nobody, except the Interior, does that."

Roll Call:
Rahall Indian Trust Fund Amendment (7/17)

Relevant Bills:
H.R.5093 | S.2708

Relevant Documents:
White House Statement of Administration Policy (7/16) | Rahall Letter (7/15) | Hayworth-Kildee Letter (7/12) | 8th Court Monitor Report (7/11) | House Committee Report (7/9) | Senate Committee Report (6/27)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Related Stories:
House clears DOI budget bill (7/18)
Rahall statement on trust fund (7/18)
House vote a victory on trust fund (7/18)
Debate rages on Interior bill (7/17)
White House approved DOI spending bill (7/17)
Objections on trust fund ignored (7/16)
House to debate DOI funding bill (7/16)
IIM project affects little in trust (7/16)
House trust fund bill opposed (7/15)
Full accounting said not 'cost effective' (7/15)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
DOI denies involvement in House bill (7/12)
Court monitor releases new report (7/11)
ABC program to focus on Indian trust fund (7/11)
Tribes express doubts on trust reform (7/11)
Norton delivers accounting plan (7/5)
Cobell kicks off Indian Country tour (7/3)
Trust fund monitor defended (7/2)
Historical accounting plan delayed (7/2)
Norton's accounting funds limited (6/28)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)