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House approves bill to reform trust duties at Interior Department

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Debate on H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act

The House passed H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, by a voice vote on Wednesday.

H.R.812, the first significant trust reform bill to gain traction in decades, makes changes to trust management duties at the Interior Department by encouraging more tribal self-determination over their trust funds and trust assets. It establishes an Under Secretary for Indian Affairs to oversee all Indian programs at DOI and, more significantly, lays the groundwork to return the functions of Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"While the Office of the Special Trustee, or OST, has implemented positive reforms since its creation in 1994, the time has come to transition to a more modern, efficient, and accountable system for the management of Indian trust resources," said Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Massachusetts).

Tribes and tribal organizations nationwide support the measure but the Obama administration does not. Although a "sunset" of OST was envisioned by the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994, federal officials do not want to dismantle the agency at this point.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) speaks at the National Congress of American Indians executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 24, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.383, a similar version of the bill, last July but it has not been brought up for consideration on the Senate floor. The sponsor, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), said he would support movement on H.R.812 in his chamber.

"Tribes know what is best for their members and their communities," Crapo said at the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

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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