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House set for debate and vote on Indian Trust Asset Reform Act

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby opens the organization's executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

The first significant trust reform bill in decades is moving toward passage in the House.

Lawmakers will consider H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, on Wednesday, according to the Majority leader's schedule. It will be considered under a suspension of the rules, a process typically reserved for non-controversial bills.

In the eyes of Indian Country, the measure is non-controversial. National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby said tribal leaders have been working to update trust management practices at the Interior Department for years.

"Through this effort, tribes will decide what the trust relationship looks like today and into the future," Cladoosby said as NCAI opened its executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

The Obama administration, however, has opposed the bill, which lays the groundwork to return the functions of Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a long-standing request of tribal leaders. The measure also creates an Under Secretary for Indian Affairs to oversee all Indian programs at Interior.

Special Trustee Vince Logan speaks at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention in San Diego, California, on October 22, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

"The department can appreciate that some in Indian Country want to get back to 'business as usual' now that the system is working well and the Cobell litigation is settled, but we need to ensure that any proposed reforms do not inadvertently undo the progress achieved, and do, in fact, provide genuine value and a responsible return on investment," Special Trustee Vince Logan said in written testimony to the House Subcommittee Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs in April 2015.

The last major trust reform bill was essentially the first one. In 1994, Congress passed the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act to create OST, whose primary goal was to oversee trust reform efforts at Interior.

After some slow starts during the Clinton administration, the agency quickly grew in size, budget and scope during the Bush administration. Tribal leaders complained that the BIA was being punished by the dramatic expansion.

At one point, the Obama administration was open to discussing a "sunset" of the agency -- a process envisioned by the 1994 law. But that idea was essentially abandoned after the National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform released its final report in December 2013.

OST oversees nearly $4.9 billion in trust funds. The money is held in about 3,300 trust accounts for more than 250 tribes and another 400,000 accounts for individual Indians.

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