House Dems Tout COVID-19 Measures For Tribes, Eye More

By Andrew Westney
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Law360 (March 27, 2020, 7:09 PM EDT) -- As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens in Indian Country, House Democrats praised the inclusion of over $10 billion for tribes in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed by the president Friday, but said more federal funding would be needed to tackle the crisis.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act includes an $8 billion "stabilization fund" to support tribal governments dealing with the coronavirus pandemic at the core of more than $10 billion in benefits available to tribes and tribal organizations. After the U.S. House of Representatives approved the bill Friday, President Donald Trump signed it into law later in the day.

The CARES Act comes as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. rose above 86,000 and as nearly 3.3 million Americans filed unemployment claims in recent weeks.

Tribes have reported mounting numbers of infected among their members, with the Navajo Nation, which has the largest tribal reservation in the country, saying Thursday that the number of cases there had risen to 71 amid a shortage of medical equipment and supplies.

"This pandemic is showing the many cracks in our nation's ability to take care of its own people, and those failures were already glaring in Indian Country and the U.S. territories before the virus reached our shores," Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement Friday after the bill's passage by the House.

"This bill is a good first step in protecting public health and keeping families afloat in the middle of an economic crisis," Grijalva added. "The next bill we pass needs to do more than keep our heads above water for a few more months — it needs to put our country on a path to ending the health and economic disparities we can no longer take for granted."

The $8 billion "tribal stabilization fund" in Section 601 of the bill makes the emergency funds available from the Treasury Department, which will consult with the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, to tribal governments that can show they spent funds for costs incurred fighting the COVID-19 virus.

The Indian Health Service, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency, will receive more than $1 billion to help tribes pay for COVID-19 treatment and containment of the virus, with a further $305 million going to Indian Housing Programs in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $100 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and $453 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for public safety and law enforcement.

The bill also makes tribes and tribal businesses eligible to receive $454 billion in loan guarantee funding as well as $349 billion through a U.S. Small Business Administration loan program.

Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said in a statement Friday that the bill was "a positive first step towards immediately increasing health care capacity in Indian Country and ensuring tribal governments can continue to provide essential services during this pandemic."

But with many tribal businesses that pay for government services closed, "the federal government must make every effort to make this money available immediately, without the delays we've seen with past aid, and why we must commit to ensuring that Indian Country is also not left out of further relief efforts," Gallego said.

Republican lawmakers also praised the tribal provisions of the bipartisan bill, including Rep. Don Young of Alaska and Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

Cole, a Chickasaw Nation citizen, said in a statement Friday that he had "worked very hard to ensure tribal nations are equipped to face and fight the unknown challenges ahead with this coronavirus like other state and local authorities."

"Oklahoma is home to 39 sovereign tribes, and each one plays an invaluable role in the lives and health of their members and surrounding communities," Cole said. "I am proud that this relief package dedicates generous resources specifically for tribal nations to respond."

Kevin J. Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians  — who last week warned of a potential "disaster" for tribal governments dealing with the coronavirus — said in a statement Friday that the new law "is not only a monumental achievement for Indian Country, it is a landmark affirmation of tribal governmental parity and the federal government's trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations."

"Indian Country achieved this victory through the around-the-clock efforts of tribal leaders and advocates across the nation working as one to ensure that the needs of tribal governments and communities are addressed in the weeks and months to come," Allis said. "Unity is our greatest asset."

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper. Editing by Peter Rozovsky. 

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