President Barack Obama’s Budget Concerns Indian Country Leaders

By Rob Capriccioso, Indian Country Today Media Network

Concerned Indian country leaders are saying that President Barack Obama, in his proposed budget for 2014, is not doing as strong a job at upholding the nation’s trust responsibility to American Indians as he has promised.

The budget, released April 10, is the president’s first time while in office to dramatically shrink his support for Indian programs in some key areas, including reductions in contract support services, education and school construction cuts, and spending on low-income housing.

In total, the $3.78 trillion budget would cut copy trillion in spending and raise $800 billion in new revenue over the next 10 years.

Indian organizations and tribes are still analyzing much of the budget and what it will mean, but some have already released statements of concern.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) offered a grave assessment on April 12, saying that the “organization is deeply concerned about proposed cuts that threaten recent progress in critical areas,” and noting the areas of reduction in an analysis that would harm tribes.

At the same time, NCAI saw some positive developments: “We see signs of hope in the President’s proposal to replace the sequester and expand investments to enhance tribal law enforcement and strengthen the Indian Health Service but now is not time to slow the progress we have seen in Indian country,” said Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI. “The federal government must live up to its obligations in critical trust responsibility areas like contract support costs, education, and housing. We’ve experienced decades of the federal government falling short, and while we understand the limitations of the federal government, the federal trust responsibility to tribal nations and our peoples, is not a line item.”

Despite that optimism, the White House has been hesitant to single out Indian programs for protection in its budget process and in the current budget sequester that went into effect March 1, reducing many federal programs that offer support to tribes.

Charlie Galbraith, the Associate Director for Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, told tribal leaders of the United South and Eastern Tribes in February that tribes could not be exempted from the sequester, despite this seeming to conflict with the administration’s stance on supporting federal trust responsibility for tribes.

“That’s just not going to happen,” Galbraith said. “We have the entire military machine, every lobbyist, every contractor, trying to exempt the military provision—the president is not going to cut this off piecemeal. We need a comprehensive solution that is going to address the real problem here.”

Still, programs at the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Transportation, as well as Congress’ pay, were exempted from the sequester—so there were some sacred cows. Indian programs could have been protected as well, if the federal government could have agreed to support that outcome. The Obama administration has not pushed for such an action, despite often saying it supports strong federal trust responsibility toward tribes.

NCAI ended its statement on a positive note, saying that there were “promising signs” in the president’s budget request, including public safety monies for tribes, a small increase in the Indian Health Service budget and contract health services, an increase for the Environmental Protection Agency’s General Assistance Program, a $32 million in increases for natural resource programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and language that provides “a no-cost economic development and jobs creation solution for restoring land to tribal governments impacted by the Carcieri Supreme Court decision.”

“NCAI will work to ensure that the federal programs that fulfill the trust responsibility to tribes receive bipartisan support in the appropriations process,” the organization concluded.

To date under the Obama administration, Congress has done a strong job at appropriating monies for Indian country-related programs, and Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) has noted that Congress has actually appropriated more in several tribal areas than the president has requested. Many in Indian country, no doubt, will be hoping that that happens again.