Alaska senators defend Native corporations

WASHINGTON — Alaska Native corporations dodged a major bullet this week as Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich headed off an effort by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to clamp down on their federal contracting with the Defense Department.
McCaskill, who convened a hearing into the contracting issue just last week, filed an amendment to a pending defense bill that would have slapped new restrictions on preferences enjoyed by the Alaska native corporations.
In the wake of swift action by the Alaska senators and vigorous lobbying from native groups, McCaskill backed off, at least temporarily.
But McCaskill issued a strong statement indicating that she plans to push ahead to “restore competitiveness in government contracts.”
“Reform in this area is going to happen,” said McCaskill, a former state auditor. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.”
The McCaskill amendment would have placed a $5.5 million cap on defense contracts to Alaska Native corporations under the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) business development program.
Under current law, there is no cap on the Alaska Native contracts.
The amendment also would have barred the Defense Department from awarding no-bid contracts to Native firms and would have banned the payment of a bonus when Native firms are used as subcontractors.
At a three-hour hearing last week, McCaskill advocated all of these changes despite a strong defense of the program by Alaska Native representatives.
The Alaska senators learned Wednesday that McCaskill had filed the amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill.
Begich talked with McCaskill that night, expressing his strong objections, according to his spokeswoman Julie Hasquet.
Begich pointed out that McCaskill pledged to leave the hearing record open for 15 days and to work with Alaska Native groups. Begich said proceeding with the amendment so quickly would violate that commitment.
Begich met with McCaskill again the next day, Hasquet said.
Murkowski took another tack, raising an objection that the amendment must be considered by the committees with jurisdiction, including Indian Affairs, Armed Services and Small Business.
The filing of the objection “ensured the amendment would not move forward without facing multiple and difficult hurdles,” according to Michael Brumas, spokesman for Murkowski.
Murkowski also is asking the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on the issue.
“This is a matter of federal Indian policy. Tribal consultations need to occur before any reforms are proposed,” Brumas said.
He added that the hearing in McCaskill’s subcommittee on contracting was “a hostile environment” for the Alaska Native corporations, but the Indian Affairs Committee would provide a fair and impartial review.
For her part, McCaskill indicated she will keep applying pressure on the issue.
“The amendment was set aside but will be pursued down the line,” said Maria Speiser, spokeswoman for McCaskill.

By:  Betty Mills