Congress passes first comprehensive Indian trust bill in decades

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

A bill that encourages tribes to take greater control of their trust funds and trust assets has cleared both chambers of Congress.

The Senate passed H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, by unanimous consent on Friday afternoon. The move follows approval by the House on February 24.

“Today, Congress passed legislation that will empower tribes to better manage their own trust assets,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release. “It is our obligation to guarantee that Indian trust assets benefit tribal citizens. I am pleased that this bill has passed the full Congress and I encourage the president to sign it into law.”

A signature from President Barack Obama, though, is not guaranteed due to a provision that lays the groundwork to return the functions of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tribal leaders have supported a "sunset" of the OST, a process envisioned by the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. But officials at the Interior Department do not support dismantling the agency at this time.

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 bill also establishes an Under Secretary for Indian Affairs to oversee all Indian programs at the department. The Obama administration questioned that provision as well.

"H.R.812 makes significant restructuring and reorganization of Indian Affairs without taking into consideration budgetary cost implications that could result as part of its implementation," Special Trustee Vince Logan, a member of the Osage Nation, said in written testimony last April. "Nor does it provide assurances that the independence of OST, which enabled it to make significant improvements to the fiduciary and accountability standards for managing tribal and individual Indian trust accounts, will be maintained under the proposed new structure."

H.R.812 is the first major trust reform bill to clear Congress since the 1994 law. Tribes and tribal organizations say changes are long overdue.

"Through this effort, tribes will decide what the trust relationship looks like today and into the future," National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby said in February.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has not issued a formal statement on H.R.812.

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