Pay back Native Americans

The president has finally submitted to Congress a plan to pay in full the nation’s service contracts with Indian tribes.  What a concept: fully paying a contract you signed. 

But it has actually taken 40 years to get these contracts honored, another sad chapter in our nation’s relationship with our First Peoples.  Having achieved this milestone now is the time to close this chapter by fully compensating tribes for the decades of suffering due to severe contract underpayments.

At issue are basic services such as healthcare, public safety and education delivered to some of America’s poorest citizens who live in the nation’s most remote communities.

This story goes back decades.  In 1970 President Nixon first called on the government to get out of the business of controlling and suppressing Indian tribes, and instead to transfer all federal programs to willing tribal governments.  President Nixon called it the Indian Self-Determination Policy, and the point was to restore tribal governments to their rightful place in the family of American governments. 

It’s what we now know as a special government-to-government relationship. In 1975, Congress responded by passing the Indian Self-Determination Act. 

Knowing that federal agencies would resist giving up control, Congress required the agencies to award binding contracts to qualifying tribes for a host of services such as health care.  Even with a clear vision, the way forward was rough and often marked by federal control through regulation, leading Congress to return twice to override excessive regulations. 

Even with statutory reforms, one issue proved remarkably hard to fix: the agencies’ refusal to budget for and pay the contracts in full.  Year after year, the tribes were cheated, and year after year they were forced to cut critical services to their members to make up for the difference. 

For tribes, it was another broken promise, just like the hundreds of broken treaties they endured as they watched their lands taken and their people displaced—or worse. 

Things began to change in the 1990’s. A few tribes started to push back, challenging the conventional wisdom within the agencies, arguing that contracts with tribes were no different from contracts with any other entity. 

Finally after 20 years of excruciatingly slow and costly lawsuits, the tribes finally won.  In 2005 and again in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the tribes and said America’s full faith and credit stands behind every government contract—even contracts with Indian tribes. 

The Obama administration’s initial reaction was to stonewall the hundreds of tribal lawsuits. The ask to Congress: override the Supreme Court’s rulings, and instead enact caps on how much tribes would be paid in the future. 

The reaction from tribes across the country was fast and furious, equally so in Congress. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in, concerned that if tribes could be cheated on the hospitals they manage for the government, then other government contractors could be next. 

After Obama announced last November his readiness to work with Congress and tribes, all remaining barriers were removed. As the Washington Post recently reported, for the first time in history these contracts will now be paid in full.

This is important progress. Fully funding contracts to tribes means creating jobs and certainty in our communities. In my state of Alaska, six new facilities spanning across the state will now have the resources they need to bring hundreds of health professionals on board to provide critical services.

But the administration still needs to square up with tribes over past underpayments.  According to certified agency reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, the accumulated contract underpayments over the past two decades total more than $2 billion. 

Yet only 1 percent of the claims have been resolved since the 2012 Supreme Court decision.  Why? Because an army of government lawyers and hired accountants are now slow-walking these decade-old claims with new accounting tricks, new audits, new surveys, new methodologies and an overall divide-and-conquer strategy. 

Tribes already are cutting back on services due to budget cuts, while still faced with the obligation of serving some of the most economically depressed communities in America.  The last thing tribes need is more justice delayed from a government that already certified to Congress exactly how much it still owes.

This is not a partisan issue—it is an American issue. Members of Congress of both political parties have repeatedly called for an end to this treatment.  Tribes across the country operate hundreds of federal hospitals, clinics, police departments and schools. 

By all accounts they perform admirably, far better than the government.  They should have been paid in full for their work.  It really is that simple. 

Begich is Alaska's junior senator, serving since 2009. He sits on the Appropriations; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; the Indian Affairs; and the Veterans' Affairs committees.