President Donald Trump, seated in his desk in the Oval Office, participates in a Hurricane Florence briefing at the White House on September 11, 2018. Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian / White House

Another Indian bill makes its way to President Trump's desk

President Donald Trump's reputation in Indian Country is often in the dumps even as Congress keeps giving him opportunities to sign pro-tribal bills into law.

The latest is H.R.6124, the Tribal Social Security Fairness Act. The bipartisan bill, which brings parity to tribal governments when it comes to Social Security, cleared its final hurdle on Capitol Hill last week and is on its way to the White House for the president's signature.

“Through the tribal cooperative agreements authorized by this legislation, Congress is taking an important step to provide the same opportunities for tribes that are afforded to other governments and municipalities,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release on Monday.

The measure cleared the Senate by unanimous consent on Friday, meaning it enjoyed support from every member, Republican and Democrat. It passed the House on July 24, under a suspension of the rules, a process typically used for legislation that is considered non-controversial.

"This bill rights a wrong for our tribal leaders, ensuring that they can receive the Social Security benefits they deserve," said Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Washington), the sponsor of H.R.6124. "For too long, they haven’t been given the chance to pay into Social Security, and that just isn’t fair."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Debate on H.R.6124, the Tribal Social Security Fairness Act - U.S. House of Representatives - July 24, 2018

But on the same day lawmakers were putting the final touches on the bill, President Trump was attempting to antagonize the very people it benefits. During a speech in North Dakota -- where his approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline remains a major issue -- he chastised tribal citizens for not being more prominent supporters of his agenda.

"I say with respect to the Native Americans, that I go right back to where I was two years ago when I was campaigning, what do you have to lose? What do you have to lose?" Trump said in Fargo.

In calling attention to North Dakota's "big Native American population" -- about 5.5 of the state's total, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- Trump made a pitch for Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota), who is running for U.S. Senate. He claimed Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), the incumbent, "has not done a good job" for Indian Country.

"They sort of vote for her because maybe they haven't had the right choices," Trump asserted of Native voters who have played a role in deciding close elections. "Maybe they don't the what's going on with respect to the world of Washington and politics."

Heitkamp's campaign answered Trump's "what do you have to lose" question by promoting her record as a longtime member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Though she wasn't a co-sponsor of the Tribal Social Security Fairness Act, she has helped other bipartisan measures become law -- including one signed by Trump earlier this year.

"In the Senate, Heidi has been a fierce advocate for Native Americans – successfully pushing for a commission to address challenges facing Native children, passing legislation to expand AMBER Alerts and raising awareness about the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women," her re-election team said on Monday.

In comparison, Cramer's record on Indian issues is not as strong as Heitkamp's. From a major stumble with Native women early in his Congressional career to his eager defense of Dakota Access and its wealthy backers, he hasn't focused much on Indian Country issues.

Heitkamp, incidentally, has faced fallout among tribal citizens from her refusal to support the #NoDAPL movement and for defending the state's often violent and harsh treatment of pipeline protesters. That isn't much of a concern for Trump, who boasted of his role in ensuring the pipeline was completed, an issue that remains the subject of litigation.


"How about Dakota Access?" he said to applause. "That was a very unfair situation. And you know, I approved it."

"I thought there'd be protests -- nobody called me," he said as some in the crowd laughed. "They just built the pipeline, it's been working ever since."

Like Heitkamp, Cramer wasn't a sponsor of the Tribal Social Security Fairness Act either, a measure that has enjoyed widespread support in Indian Country, particularly in the Great Plains and in the Pacific Northwest. Tribes want to ensure that future generations of elected leaders can benefit from Social Security.

"I have worked on this issue for a number of years because it is important to encourage our youth to serve our communities and we should do that by eliminating barriers to service," said Virginia Cross, the chair of the Muckleshoot Tribe. "No one should be punished by the federal government for serving their community."

The bill, once it is signed into law, authorizes the Social Security Administration to enter into government-to-government agreements with tribes. Doing so will enable members of a tribe's governing body the option of paying into and receiving Social Security benefits -- a privilege already extended to state and local governments.

“With this bill, leaders across Indian Country will have long overdue parity with other governmental leaders," Tina Danforth, a citizen of the Oneida Nation who serves as president of the Native American Finance Officers Association, said in a broadcast. "Elected tribal leaders will now be able to 'opt-in' to the Social Security program, which many Americans rely on for a safety net,”

The House version of the bill had three Republican supporters and four Democratic ones. Two Democrats and one Republican signed on to S.1309, the Senate version.

“Tribal council members in Washington state and throughout the country have dedicated their lives to service and improving their communities,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said in a press release. “They deserve the same access to Social Security that all other Americans have.”

Trump's Signature
Since the start of the 115th Congress, lawmakers have sent seven Indian bills to President Donald Trump. He has signed six into law so far:

H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act. The new law makes an Indian Country job program permanent. It was signed on December 18, 2017.

H.R.1306, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. The new law helps the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians and the Coquille Tribe with issues affecting their homelands. It was signed on January 8, 2018.

H.R.984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act. The new law extends federal recognition to the Chickahominy Tribe, the Chickahominy Tribe - Eastern Division, the Monacan Nation, the Nansemond Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe and the Upper Mattaponi Tribe. It was signed on January 29.

S.772, the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act. The new law makes tribes eligible for AMBER Alert grants for the first time. It was signed on April 13.

S.1285, the Oregon Tribal Economic Development Act. The bill helps the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians improve their economies by resolving land and leasing issues. It was signed on June 1.

S.2850, a bill to help the White Mountain Apache Tribe with a critical drinking water project in Arizona and two Pueblo tribes with economic development efforts in New Mexico. It was signed on August 1.

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