Tribal officials urge Pelosi to stop Senate's COVID relief clawback plan
Romney announced Schumer was already on board to take back hundreds of millions from tribes, blindsiding tribes in the process.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) announcement yesterday of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) support in clawing back hundreds of millions in tribal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to pay for other COVID-related programs hit Indian Country like a bombshell.
“Stealing funds from those who are poorest, sickest and least able to fight back is despicable and demonstrates a callous disregard for American Indian and Alaska Native lives,” Stacy Bohlen, CEO of the National Indian Health Board, told Indigenous Wire. “This is nothing short of outrageous.”
Several Navajo Nation council delegates are in D.C. today working on this issue, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community has sent a letter to U.S. Sens. Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R), both of Montana, expressing alarm. More dismayed tribal letters are reportedly to follow.
“If [this legislation] is enacted, Indian Country will lose hundreds of million of dollars we have been waiting to put toward critical infrastructure investments in water, healthcare and housing, and Indian Country's small businesses will once again be completely left out of relief,” wrote Jeffrey Stiffarm, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, in the April 5 letter.
As part of Romney’s announcement, the 2012 GOP presidential candidate said there was bipartisan agreement on removing $887 million from the “Local Assistance and Tribal Consistency Fund” in a breakdown he provided of offsets for the fast-moving COVID relief bill.
Tribal advocates noted that the Senate’s package would claw back $250 million of $500 million of the ARPA’s Section 605, which is a tribal stabilization fund promoted by U.S. Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). It’s meant to help tribes that were served in an inequitable manner due to the U.S. Treasury Department’s widely criticized ARPA and CARES Act tribal pandemic funding distribution formulas.
The Senate package additionally eliminates half ($1.9 billion) of the State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) allocation, for which tribal small businesses are eligible to apply.
A number of Democratic senators who fought for tribal ARPA funding have not responded to requests for comment on whether they support the tribal claw backs.
Native-focused politicos are not taking the silence from the Senate as good news, so they have turned to House leaders to try to quash momentum on a companion bill.
Many are worried that Romney would not have made the announcement yesterday noting Schumer’s support had House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) not already approved of the plan.
Bohlen shared tribes’ concerned sentiments with the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. When contacted by Indigenous Wire, a committee spokesperson directed inquiries to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office on the matter. We have reached out to Pelosi’s staff and will update when and if we hear back.
“Not only does [this plan] reflect a complete lack of honor in terms of the government’s trust and treaty obligations to the tribes, but it also reflects a callow indifference and robust ignorance around the plight of the tribes that have not yet expended earlier COVID funds,” Bohlen said.
Many economically-challenged tribes have found it difficult to comply with complex U.S. Treasury Department compliance rules and deadlines involving ARPA and CARES Act funding, due in part to having small staffs and other difficulties involved with being perennially poor during a national pandemic.
Tribes in remote and impoverished areas have also had difficulties in filling positions to help mitigate COVID.
“Please work with us to stop Congress from taking these precious, rare and long overdue health care dollars from Indian Country,” Bohlen said in statement to leaders of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.
She additionally noted that funding in the recent House omnibus package designated for the Indian Health Service (IHS) was reduced in the Congress to $6.6 billion from what the Biden administration had been supporting. Tribes, meanwhile, made the case that approximately $49.8 billion was needed to properly fund IHS for 2022 alone.
“[A]fter someone on the Hill removed $1 billion in 2022 IHS appropriations, does anyone really believe tribal funding should be clawed away for other uses?” Bohlen asked.
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