McCaskill retreats attack on tribal contracting
WASHINGTON – Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has been forced to
temporarily shelve plans to restrict government contracting with tribes
and Alaska Native Corporations.
McCaskill, a strong ally of President Barack Obama, held a
Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight hearing July 16, during which she
expressed beliefs that ANCs are receiving unwarranted preferences for
Near the end of the hearing – which was marked by requests for the
congresswoman to consider the trust obligation the federal government
has toward Native Americans – McCaskill promised to leave the record
open for 15 days as she pondered her next steps on the matter.
But less than a week later, she took action by way of offering an
amendment to a defense spending authorization bill. The amendment was
aimed at severely limiting the participation of not only ANCs, but also
tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations that operate in the Small
Business Administration’s Native 8(a) program.
A recent report by the SBA inspector general found that ANCs
received 26 percent of the total 8(a) small business contracts in 2008.
The findings have been particularly alarming to McCaskill, but
some federal lawmakers have noted that the program was purposely set up
by Congress in a way that would give preferences to Indian small
businesses, since so many tribes, reservations and Alaska Native
communities are economically disadvantaged.
Many Native Americans and members of Congress were caught off guard – and angered and hurt – by McCaskill’s action.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, immediately sprung to action,
lodging objections to the Senate Armed Services and Indian Affairs
Committees, ensuring the amendment would not move forward without
facing multiple hurdles.
Michael Brumas, a spokesman for Murkowski, explained that the
contracting preferences called into question by McCaskill “are a matter
of federal Indian policy.
“Sen. Murkowski believes that tribal consultations need to occur before any reforms are proposed.”
“As a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs where
jurisdiction of the Native 8(a) program belongs, Sen. Murkowski will
ask Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan [D-N.D.] to hold a hearing on
the issue and is hopeful the committee will be receptive to the request.
“This would allow an opportunity for Indian tribes, and Alaska Native corporations, to set the record straight.”
Brumas added that the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight
hearing was a “hostile environment” for ANCs, saying Murkowski believes
the Indian Affairs panel would provide a fair and impartial environment
for the Native corporations to tell their story.
McCaskill did pull the amendment, but also promised to keep up her battle.
“Reform in this area is going to happen,” the senator said.
“It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. The process caused
this slow down, but has not impacted the determination to restore
competitiveness in government contracts.”
Maria Speiser, a spokeswoman for McCaskill, also responded to the claim that the hearing was hostile toward American Indians.
“If you look at all the people who spoke at the hearing and the
fact that both of Alaska’s senators participated in the hearing
alongside the subcommittee members – which is unorthodox practice in
the Senate – there’s no question that this was a balanced hearing that
showed all sides of this issue.”
Whether or not the environment of the hearing was hostile, many
Native Americans and Alaska Natives were hurt by McCaskill’s amendment
decision, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said.
He had a conversation with McCaskill on the Senate floor, during
which he explained the impact of the amendment could be harmful to
federal relations with tribes and Alaska Natives.
“I thought it was unfair that she would slip in this amendment
without a full discussion and debate among our colleagues,” Begich
said, classifying his talk with her as an “intense discussion.”
After McCaskill withdrew the amendment, Begich said she promised
to have further conversations with him to clarify her desires for
Begich added that McCaskill might not have a good understanding of the federal trust responsibility toward tribes.
“I think there is an education curve that needs to be expanded
with Sen. McCaskill. I think she wants to learn more about it. … Now,
she has more time to understand the unique relationship.”
Begich said it wasn’t his impression that the Obama administration has been pushing McCaskill to proceed with this crackdown.
“I think this was not an Obama issue. This is a McCaskill issue.
Indian country is an important part of our country, and I think the
president and his administration understands that.”
Members of the Native American Contractors Association were also
surprised by McCaskill’s action, said Sarah Lukin, executive director
of the organization.
“It is inappropriate to implement sweeping changes to Native 8(a)
participation without consulting committees that have jurisdiction or
special interest in these areas. The executive branch is bound by an
executive order to ensure consultation. We should expect no less from
Lukin said this is not just an Alaska Native issue.
“Forcing community-owned Native enterprises that are responsible
for providing economic, social and cultural benefits to hundreds, and
often thousands, of disadvantaged community members to compete directly
with individually owned small businesses for an already too small piece
of the federal contracting pie – while freeing up additional federal
contracting dollars for the huge government contractors – is wrong.”
NACA is encouraging tribes, ANCs and Native Hawaiian organizations
to reach out to their members of Congress to educate them on the value
Native businesses bring to the federal marketplace and the roles Native
enterprises play in providing resources to their communities.
“We welcome the opportunity to continue the dialogue with Sen.
McCaskill to ensure that she – and all members of Congress – fully
understand the important history of U.S. government relations with its
indigenous people,” Lukin said.
Originally published in Indian Country Today on August 02, 2009