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Bush seeks dramatic changes to Cobell settlement
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Bush administration is proposing sweeping changes to the Cobell settlement bill that would phase out the federal government's trust management responsibilities and force consolidation of Indian lands.

Within 10 years, the Interior Department would no longer manage the 54 million acres held in trust for individual Indians and tribes. The goal is to turn the system into a "beneficiary-managed" trust for which the United States cannot be held liable for any damage claims.

To facilitate the major shift, the administration wants to consolidate the Indian land base through voluntary and involuntary mechanisms. Highly fractionated parcels would be whittled down to just 10 owners in the next 10 years.

And the administration is asking Congress to resolve all tribal trust claims in addition to the Cobell suit over the Individual Indian Money trust. Takings claims, land claims and environmental claims would not be affected.

These proposals were contained in a briefing paper released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Monday. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman, have not approved the changes.

But the leaders are asking Indian Country for their comments on the ideas, which mark the first time in over a year that the Bush administration has responded to the Cobell settlement bill.

"To gain support for a multi-billion dollar bill, it may be necessary to incorporate significant changes to the management system for Indian trust assets. As proposed, these changes would not remove the trust status of Indian lands, but would reallocate significant decision-making authority and legal responsibility from the federal government to the Indian tribes and individuals," the briefing paper states.

The document, also called "New Issues for S.1439," did not attribute the proposals to any particular party. But the Cobell plaintiffs tied them to the administration, whose officials have raised similar ideas in the past about the Indian trust system.

Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at Interior, has advocated for the resolution of all tribal and individual Indian trust claims. David Bernhardt, the recently-confirmed solicitor, has lobbied Congress to limit the liability of the United States.

Cason's testimony to the committee on July 26, 2005, also outlined each of the proposals now up for debate as Congressional staff hold meetings across the country to get input on the bill.

The first meeting took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, yesterday. The last will be held November 9 at the Senate Russell Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Other meetings have been scheduled in Cabazon, California (October 24); Rapid City, South Dakota (October 25); Albuquerque, New Mexico (October 31); and Bismarck, North Dakota (November 2).

Congress returns to work on November 13 after the elections. Lawmakers will dedicate most of their time to passing the appropriations bills that keep the government operating.

The outlook prompted one Democratic staffers on the committee to label chances for the bill's passage as "dire." But a Republican staffer was more optimistic when both spoke at the National Congress of American Indians annual conference earlier this month.

Either way, McCain and Dorgan have tied the delay to the Bush administration. "I think it's incomprehensible that the administration would not be able to come up with at least a response with what is a product of years of effort on the part of this committee and the interested parties," McCain said in September.

Dorgan said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have been cooperative. "It's the White House and the Office of Management and Budget that have not given us a number," Dorgan said via video at NCAI.

The Cobell case was filed in June 1996. The federal courts have affirmed the duty of the federal government to account for billions of dollars that have passed through the system.

More than two dozen tribes subsequently filed lawsuits for accounting, mismanagement and related claims. But some cases -- notably the Navajo Nation's $1.8 billion claim -- have been pending in court for years longer than Cobell or the more recent tribal suits.

Briefing Paper:

Press Release:

Relevant Documents:
Staff Draft of Cobell Settlement Bill (Posted by ITMA)

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Statement:

Indian Trust Reform Act:
S.1439 | H.R.4322

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