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Treaty Obligations Are Not “Discretionary Spending:" Will Congress Abandon the Promises?

The term sequester has a haunting meaning for Native Americans who have endured a legacy of legislative disenfranchisement.

The word “sequester” – once defined – must have a familiar ring to it for Native Americans. It means that, in spite of the treaties, in spite of the solemn exchanges of land for promises of food, health care, education, and security – the federal government is once again confiscating the little that has been left to some of the poorest people in this country.

Former Senator and chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Byron Dorgan, recently visited the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and wrote an op-ed titled “Broken Promises” in the New York Times about what he saw.

“Tribal leaders, parents and some inspiring children I’ve met make valiant efforts every day to overcome unemployment [about 85 percent on Pine Ridge], endemic poverty, historical trauma and a lack of housing, educational opportunity and health care.” He spoke of a suicide rate that is four times the national average; a homeless and abused 12-year old girl who will have to leave a shelter that is being closed; homes without electricity, many with missing windows and doors; and health care funding that runs out in May each year.

  1. Times has also published an investigative report about Pine Ridge including a video showing the effects of the sequester on the people who are part of that community. A recent New York Times editorial summed it up: Abandoned in Indian Country.
  2. Times piece highlighted some devastating specifics of the cuts:
  • The Indian Health Service stands to lose about $228 million in 2013 from automatic cuts alone. That will mean 3,000 fewer inpatients and 800,000 fewer outpatient visits each year.
  • The tribal police on Pine Ridge will lose more than $1 million, and had to lay off 14 officers. It has 9 patrol cars to patrol and respond on a reservation bigger, and much poorer, than the state of Connecticut.
  • The tribal program that delivers meals to elders who cannot leave their homes is being cut.
  • A housing repair program, coping with flimsy trailers with no running water or electricity, and a waiting list of 1500 families was shut down.
  • In spite of 100 suicide attempts in 110 days on Pine Ridge, the reservation is losing two mental-health providers because of the sequester.

Treaty Obligations Should Not Be Treated as “Discretionary Spending.”

When the sequester law was being written in 2011, it exempted a long list of programs. Some of the largest of those were programs for low-income people – food assistance, health care, and some income-support programs. Many others were considered obligations that had to be met – such as contracts that were already in place, interest on the federal debt, and retirement funds owed to those who had worked for them all of their lives.

Oddly, even though the obligations to tribes were agreed to as parts of treaties and land exchanges, these obligations were not exempted from the list of cuts. They fell into the “discretionary” part of the budget, and are being treated as “optional” obligations. (In congressional parlance, “discretionary” is just a technical term that means that a program is funded through the appropriations process rather than through another process. But in this case, other meanings of the word “discretionary” also apply.)

So just as arts programs were to be cut, so were the housing repair programs for people who roofs could not keep out the rain. Just as the Air Force thought it might have to forego some of its flashy demonstrations of its flight acrobatics at county fairs, so too should the 12-year-old homeless girl lose her chance at a safe place in a shelter. “Everything” was to be cut, across the board.

These cuts are not necessary. This year, Congress has choices.

This year, as Congress writes its appropriations bills for 2014, it follows a modified version of the sequester. There are still cuts to be made, but they do not have to affect every program equally.

Congress can choose to honor its promises, and to direct funds where they are most needed. Both of those reasons should prompt Congress to direct funds to Native American programs.

The National Congress of American Indians released its Indian Country Budget Request in February, detailing the needs of Indian Country and tallying up the cost. The cost is minimal, compared to funds wasted in our military budget, or funds spent on worthwhile but lower priority programs. These are easy and responsible choices for Congress to make.

Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the health advocacy organization, National Indian Health Board, often reminds Congress that “The tribes in this country have the world’s first prepaid health plan. They paid for it with their lives, and their land, and their culture, and the forced abrogation of their future.”

The federal government is once again considering abandoning the promises it has made, but Congress can choose another path.