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Native American Legislative Update - August 2017

Congress Has Left the Stage

August 21, 2017

The President proposes, but Congress disposes, one leading appropriator quipped when the President submitted a budget with deep cuts affecting Indian Country. With Congress on recess until September, there's a moment to check in on how the committees have been responding to the President's proposals. So far, funding looks better than might have been expected...

Capitol Hill is quieter than it has been in several months. The 115th Congress closed out its first seven months having made passable progress on several Native American bills that moved determinedly through back halls and committee rooms. These bills – mostly appropriations (spending) measures – progressed largely through old-fashioned bi-partisan agreements, or at least debates, beneath the noise of the health care fracas.

In the House, spending committees passed a handful of appropriations bills that promise some positive support for Indian country, in stark contrast to the President’s budget proposal. In the Senate, bi-partisan concerns for improving health care, ending human trafficking and preserving culture are gaining traction.

This Legislative Update reports on these developments and takes a look at some issues that are likely to come up in the fall – some as news, some as re-runs. You can download all of the stories here (a large .pdf file), or check them out individually below.

Following the Money

The full House Appropriations Committee approved several spending bills that include major Indian programs: the Department of the Interior’s appropriations, which includes health care services, justice programs, education, and economic development; Justice Department’s tribal justice programs; supplemental Indian education and health programs in the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bill, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which includes Indian housing and programs for American Indians, Alaska Natives and native Hawaiians.

Read about these programs and how they’re being funded here:

Update Following the Money: Tribal Justice and Violence 

Funding in the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Bill

Proposed funding for the Justice Department includes strong support for a handful of programs that focus on violence against Indian women. The House and Senate bills also include "set-asides" for victims of violent crimes and for the support of justice systems on tribal lands.

Update Following the Money: Indian Health Care 

Funding in the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill

There are two big stories about health care in Indian country and for urban Indians. One has to do with the adequacy of staffing and facilities for the Indian Health Service (IHS). The other has to do with protecting continued funding of federal programs including the IHS and Medicaid, Medicare, and veterans programs along with access to affordable and effective health insurance.

Update Following the Money: Indian Education and Community Building 

Funding in the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill and the Health, Human Services and Education bill

Indian students in schools owned by the Bureau of Indian Education are likely to arrive each day to a place that is leaking, rotting, corroded, too cold or too hot, and poorly furnished to support learning. How are these students supposed to build a future for themselves on such a foundation?

Update Following the Money: Indian Housing and Economic Development 

Funding in the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill

Assurance of safe and secure shelter is critical for anyone’s survival and potential, especially in some of the harsh climates to which Native people have been consigned in the “lower 48,” and in the original homelands of Alaska Natives. Yet Native Americans and Alaska Natives living in Indian country are much less likely than the rest of the nation to have a physically adequate home, with appropriate plumbing, kitchen facilities, heating, structures and protection from the elements.

Update What's Ahead? Congress Considering Bills that Affect Indian Country 

Native American Legislative Update - August 2017

The House is likely to pass its 8-bill appropriations package in early September, but the Senate might not finish all of its bills by the end of the month. So Congress will have to agree on at least a temporary spending measure, as the funds allocated in the FY2017 appropriations package will end on September 29.

House leaders plan to move these measures in early September as part of an eight-bill package released by the House Rules Committee on August 16th. (The eight-bill package can be found on the House Rules Committee website, but – caution - the link on that page leads to a 1309-page download.)

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the full Appropriations Committee has approved six (out of 12) spending bills. Two of particular interest to Indian country are the Commerce, Justice, Science bill (CJS) and the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development bill (T-HUD). Other bills impacting programs in Indian country are still being considered in appropriations subcommittees.


When Congress comes back on stage on September 5, there will be new lines to learn. The House is likely to pass its 8-bill appropriations package, but the Senate might not finish all of its bills by the end of the month. Congress will then have to agree on at least a temporary spending measure, as the funds allocated in the FY2017 appropriations package will end on September 29.

And – Congress needs to write a budget. The spending measures that are moving through committees and onto the floor of the House and Senate are being written without the authority of a budget. In July, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees issued “temporary sub-allocations,” naming the amounts that each subcommittee could spend on the agencies and programs under its jurisdiction. This information is usually agreed to in each chamber as part of the Budget Resolution. This year, appropriators made their own decisions; the budget will have to catch up at the end of the process.

New spending will also increase the federal debt, once again surpassing the current limit on borrowing (“breaking the debt ceiling.”) Increasing the authority to borrow, which used to be an automatic operation accompanying budget bills, has become a contentious issue every time it comes up. It pits “big government” philosophies against more “federalist” lines, and fuels arguments about which parts of the budget are more worthy of big spending, and about the appropriate level of taxation. But more than these debates, raising the debt ceiling is absolutely necessary for a functioning government that doesn’t want to shut down. Therefore, legislation to raise the debt ceiling attracts riders (amendments) that are unrelated to the business at hand, except in the eye of the proposer. It’s a difficult, and essential, bill to work through congressional processes.

Health care reform may yet return to the stage, but probably only after Congress figures out what to do about taxes. Tax bills come to the floor through the “reconciliation process,” which limits amendments and requires simple majority votes (as opposed to the Senate’s customary 60-vote rule.) When tax bills reduce taxes (as the President intends – at least for some), they are typically coupled with cuts in mandatory spending programs – such as Medicaid – to cover their “cost.” So a tax debate may set the stage for a re-run of the Medicaid debate.

The Capitol will be noisy once again.