The public health and economic effects of COVID-19 on tribal nations have been especially severe. To help tribes recover, Congress’s pandemic relief funding has included at least $43.6 billion to support new and existing programs that tribes could use to address their unique needs.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that while some agencies used existing programs to distribute funds quickly, others had to develop new ones. In some cases, these new programs inadvertently created barriers for tribes’ access to relief funds.
GAO noted that disbursement and eligibility requirements, distribution and reporting deadlines, and the number and type of steps that tribal recipients had to take to access and use funds varied across federal relief programs. For programs that distributed funds through existing mechanisms, such as self-determination contracts and self-governance compacts, tribal recipients generally did not need to take action. These contracts and compacts authorize federally recognized tribes to take over the administration of certain federal programs previously administered by agencies. For other programs, tribal recipients had to take additional steps, such as applying for and receiving approval to access and use certain COVID-19 funds.
GAO identified lessons learned from selected agencies’ administration of COVID-19 relief funding that could improve future federal relief for tribal recipients. For example, using existing mechanisms, such as contracts and compacts, can enable agencies to more quickly distribute funds to recipients and mitigate administrative burden for agencies and tribes. By enabling agencies to use existing mechanisms to distribute funds, GAO says Congress would better ensure that they distribute these funds more quickly and with minimal additional administrative burden on tribal recipients and agencies. This also allows agencies to maintain accountability in the use of the funds through existing reporting mechanisms. Additionally, GAO found that increasing federal capacity and expertise for working with tribal recipients could improve federal administration of future funding for tribal recipients. In accordance with a 2021 presidential memo, each selected agency is implementing an action plan that includes building capacity and expertise to better meet the unique needs of tribes and tribal communities.