WASHINGTON – On September 19, the U.S. House passed a Stafford Act amendment, which allows federally recognized tribes to seek a federal emergency or disaster declaration directly from the President of the United States, rather than having to go through state officials as current federal law mandates. Soon after passage, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., and author of the bill, said, “For more than a decade Indian tribes have sought a direct line to the federal government in order to expedite aid during an emergency or major disaster. Now, with this action by the House of Representatives, they are one crucial step closer to being able to access appropriate federal assistance when unforeseen adversity hits.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate also offered high praise: “The U.S. government has a unique government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribal governments, and amending the Stafford Act to recognize this sovereign relationship will only strengthen the way that FEMA supports tribal communities before, after and during disasters. The House’s action…is an important step forward for this legislation which would strengthen our nation’s emergency management team.”
In the days leading up to the passage, Indian Country Today Media Network conducted an interview with Fugate, in which he explained the background behind the bill, the importance of it to Indian country, and its prospects in the overall U.S. Congress.
The Obama administration has been pushing for passage of a bill like this since December 2011, and tribes have been pushing for much longer than that. Is it frustrating that it still hasn’t cleared both branches of Congress?
Extremely. It requires Congress to act. This is a very specific requirement to amend the Stafford Act. We have been having to wait to see when they are able to get to this….
Has there been any opposition to the tribal provisions on the House or Senate side?
There hasn’t been outright opposition to this. I think there are just so many competing things and issues going on in Congress right now that this is not seen as a priority to get done. I know it is in Indian country, because I have met with so many tribal leaders who have made calls, written letters, have actually come up to [D.C.], but…the backdrop is everything else that’s going on in Washington, and everything else Congress is dealing with.
What have you been doing to get it to move?
This has essentially been my legislative priority. We have stayed in contact with the House appropriators and the authorizers. In the Senate, it’s particularly the Homeland Security Chairman Joseph Lieberman and Ranking Member Susan Collins, and on the appropriations, it’s Sen. Mary Landrieu. We’ve been talking with her staff, and they have questions, but they aren’t the type of questions that lead you to believe this isn’t going to happen…. I don’t think there is hostile or any other type of outright opposition, at least not that we’re aware of….
What are some of the questions that have come from the Senate on this?
Usually it’s about what the cost is going to be and how many more declarations are expected and how we’re going to administer this. We get some of the same questions we get from tribal leadership, like, ‘Will you use different thresholds and criteria for tribal declarations than you use for states?’ and, ‘How are you going to adjudicate these requests that come from the tribal governments and what the states are asking for?’ You don’t want to have duplication of benefits. It’s a fair question because you have many tribes where enrolled members don’t live on tribal lands, but they receive services from the tribe and they have fiduciary support from the tribe, but they may live in areas already covered under governors’ declarations…. The question is: How will you ensure that they apply for assistance under one?
What has been your response to that question?
We actually went back and showed them tribal governments that were included in state declarations and how much was expended, and what this means [in terms of spending]…. It is a very manageable number. It isn’t something that would be so outside of what we have been doing that it would become a budgetary issue or a showstopper. I think we have been able to answer that this won’t cause more financial liability for the federal government. It’s not going to substantially change our programs….
Under the issue that you raised about a tribal citizen living off a reservation, how will that be addressed?
I think our system would address that right now—we would base it upon where you live. Your physical address that you’re claiming assistance for…. For tribal governments, the biggest challenge will be what the tribe declares, but the state doesn’t….
Have you been personally reaching out to folks in Congress to explain these answers to their questions?
Yes, we’ve done something that I’ve only done twice since I’ve been here…. In my role as the principal emergency management advisor for the Secretary of Homeland Security, the President, and Congress…I wrote a letter to Congress urging their support of this…. We are also working directly with the chairmen, the ranking members, and the appropriations chairs….
Have tribes been helpful in this process?
I think the tribes have been very effective. I’ve talked to a lot of tribal governors and presidents who have been up here. There has been a lot of concerted effort.
What can tribes be doing to help more?
Just like with anything, the more Congress hears from constituents, the more responsive they are…. There just needs to be a concerted effort that this stays front and center, and that it doesn’t get buried under other priorities…. I think too often in Indian country, it gets sometimes taken for granted that a request has been made, but a lot of members of Congress don’t have federally-recognized tribes in their communities, or they’re not a significant part of their day-to-day constituency loads…. It’s important to let all members of Congress know that this is important to Indian country—that this is a sovereignty issue, that the administration supports it, and that it’s the right thing to do.
How did your understanding of tribal sovereignty come about?
I knew this from working with the Seminole Tribe and the Mississippi Nation down in Florida…. The Seminole Tribe had always been very progressive on emergency management issues, and they were always willing to help out local communities. But even though they helped, they would forego federal grant dollars because they didn’t want to be a sub-grantee of the state of Florida, so they would forgo that. I knew that the sovereignty of the tribe took precedent over even the ability to get grant dollars….
I also know that people from Washington are great about coming in and telling you what you want to hear, and leaving without ever doing a damn thing. I went to [tribal meetings of the National Congress of American Indians] and said, ‘First things first, I want to listen.’ I got it with the proverbial both barrels—that FEMA was not a good partner, that FEMA had not recognized the sovereignty of the tribes, that FEMA treated federally-recognized tribes as political subdivisions, and that we said we would do consultation, but we never did consultation, and if we did, it was after the fact….
How did you handle that criticism?
When we came back, there were so many issues, that I really looked at this and asked our staff, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ I was basically told it was a workload issue—all kinds of reasons. I said, ‘To me it really comes down to three basic principles: recognizing the sovereignty of the federally-recognized tribes; it needs to be about self-determination; and…in doing these programs we need to look at Indian country as having a nation-to-nation relationship with us.
Why has this issue become so important for you? Why are you going out on a limb here?
Because this is what Indian country told me we needed to do.