COVID-19: Lessons Learned From Administering Interior and Treasury CARES Law Funds Could Improve Federal Tribal Emergency Relief

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What GAO found

The Home Office distributed the operating funds for the CARES Act Indian Programs (OIPs) through existing programs, while the Treasury Department had to set up a new program to distribute the Relief Fund for the coronavirus (CRF) Tribal Government Set-Aside. This resulted in the tribes taking less steps to access and use the OIP credits from the Interior than the Treasury program.

  • Interior. The CARES law required the Interior to make available at least $ 400 million in OIP credits to meet the direct needs of the tribes. The interior disbursed these funds through two existing programs based on tribal registration. As a result, tribes had to take few administrative steps to access and use the funds.
  • Treasury. The CARES Act created the CRF as a new program. The FRC credit included an $ 8 billion tribal layaway. The Treasury did not have an allocation methodology or pre-existing mechanisms to disburse this funding to the tribes, so it had to develop them before it could make payments. The Treasury distributed the CRF Tribal Set-Aside in two tranches, using several allocation methodologies. The Treasury has instructed the tribes to take several administrative steps to access and use CRF payments. For example, tribes had to submit two sets of data to receive the two installments of CRF payments.

The selected agencies and tribes faced various challenges regarding the OIP ownership of the CARES law and the tribal set-aside of the CRF. The Treasury faced greater challenges than the Interior and was delayed in distributing CRF payments to the tribes. For example:

  • Treasury officials said the work needed to develop CARES-compliant distribution formulas contributed to delays in CRF disbursements to tribes.
  • Selected tribes told GAO that the Treasury used certain data in one of its allocation methodologies without consulting the tribes on the data and their limits. Such a consultation could have allowed the agency to make changes or address tribal concerns before making payments using the data. As a result, some tribes have not received timely emergency relief to meet the needs of the pandemic.
  • Tribal organizations, academic researchers and selected tribes said adjusting to changing Treasury guidelines on permitted uses of funds further delays tribal implementation of projects and increases their administrative burden.

The Treasury applied some lessons learned to its administration of a subsequent relief program established by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. For example, the Treasury improved its communication with tribes about the authorized use of funds. However, the Treasury has not formalized other lessons learned in its tribal consultation policy. Specifically, the Treasury’s tribal consultation policy does not require the agency to consult with tribes on the data it plans to use to make policy decisions with tribal implications. Until the Treasury updates its policy, it risks using data without meaningful dialogue with tribes about data limitations. This deprives Treasury of any information tribes might provide on how to address data limitations and may increase the risk that programs will not be as effective in meeting tribal needs in a timely manner.

Why GAO did this study

The GAO has previously found that COVID-19 disproportionately harms the public health and economies of tribal nations in the United States. As of March 2020, the CARES Act allocated more than $ 9 billion in federal programs for tribes and their members. Set aside and 453 million dollars for the OIP of the Interior (funds of the law CARES).

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing surveillance and surveillance efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report is part of this body of work. It examines (1) the approaches taken by the interior and the Treasury to distribute CARES law funds to tribes and the steps required for tribes to access and use these funds, and (2) the challenges facing agencies and Selected tribes were confronted and lessons learned that could improve future federal emergency relief. to the tribes.

To carry out this work, GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed officials of federal agencies, representatives of three tribal organizations and two academic research centers – selected for their work related to the CARES Act funds – and officials from seven selected tribes who accessed agency CARES law funds. .

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