The man charged with stewarding the nation’s public lands was called before a Senate panel on Tuesday, where he attempted to defend the Trump administration’s call for massive cuts to his own Interior Department, particularly programs for Native Americans.
Secretary Ryan Zinke went to the mat for the White House’s austerity blueprint, despite receiving a stream of criticism from members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, over how the blueprint hits indigenous Americans particularly hard.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Mastro (D-Nev.) grilled the Secretary over a proposed 12 percent cut to the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and an additional $23.3 million taken out of social service and welfare programs for Native Americans.
“Clearly, when it comes to the Bureau of Indian Education,” Sec. Zinke said in response, “I think we failed.”
Aside from withholding massive amounts of funding from the agency, the Secretary admitted, however, he was at a loss for ideas to improve Native American education.
“More money may not produce a better solution,” he claimed. “Something is not right.”
The BIE oversees education facilities serving roughly 50,000 Native American students.
Federal watchdogs, including the Government Accountability Office (GAO), frequently knock the BIE for managing sub-par schools. A 2016 GAO report, for example, concluded that the BIE doesn’t have a sufficient inspection regimen in place to “determine the magnitude and severity of safety and health deficiencies at schools.”
The Secretary claimed that he was open to working with Congress on a better solution.
The proposed budget cuts to BIE are in tune with the austerity imposed on the entire Native American community in the Trump Interior budget.
Hundreds of millions of dollars would be reduced from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) budget. The agency is tasked with managing social services and land protection for nearly two million indigenous Americans across the country.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) asked the Secretary how the President’s proposed cuts support Native American sovereignty. “How can you build trust in Indian country when you present a budget like this?” the senator asked.
“This is what a balanced budget looks like,” Sec. Zinke responded, repeating a mantra he used throughout the hearing to justify his department’s drastically reduced proposed budget, which would allocate $1.6 billion less in annual funding — a 12 percent cut.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs alone would shoulder $371 million in reductions.
“There are others way to balance budgets, and on the backs of the tribes is not a way to do it,” Sen. Franken told the Secretary.