National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel addresses the organization's winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Legislation | Regulation

Tribes looking for more support to pass controversial sovereignty bill


Tribes are not quite there when it comes to a controversial bill that recognizes their sovereignty over labor unions.

A vote on the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act was expected during the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians this week. But it's now being delayed to March, or possibly April, the organization's top staffer said on Tuesday.

"They postponed it," NCAI's executive director Jackie Pata said in Washington, D.C. She cited the release of the Trump administration's new budget and the recent government shutdown battles as factors affecting to the change in schedule.

Still, the delay gives Indian Country more time to garner more support for the bill, which exempts tribes from federal labor laws and treats them in a manner similar to states and local governments.

"We’re at 57 votes," said Pata, who is Tlingit from Alaska. "We need a few more."

Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Michigan) addresses the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2018. He was one of 216 Republicans who voted for the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act when it was included in an unrelated bill in the House last month. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Pata was referring to the need to secure at least 60 votes in the Senate to secure passage of the measure. A super-majority would help keep the bill from being filibustered or otherwise held up in the chamber, which remains closely divided between Republicans and Democrats.

If it comes down to a vote, many Republicans are expected to back the measure. To them, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act represents a way to address federal over-reach and reduce regulatory burdens on tribes.

It's the Democrats who aren't entirely on board. Although some have indicated they will back the bill, they are facing intense pressure from labor unions -- one of their party's historical allies -- to vote against it despite otherwise supporting tribes on a wide rnage of issues.

But Indian Country shouldn't take anyone's position for granted, Pata said.

"It is important that Democrats and Republicans alike be shored up," she said, describing the bill as an "inherent recognition of tribal sovereignty and tribal government."

"It is a shame that tribal governments are not included as governments, like state governments and local government" when it comes to the National Labor Relations Act, she added.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), addresses the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2018. She was one of 158 Democrats who voted against the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act when it was included in an unrelated bill in the House last month. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

For decades, tribes never had to worry about the federal law, which was first passed in 1935, just a year after the Indian Reorganization Act. But that changed as their businesses -- namely, their gaming facilities -- became more and more successful, attracting the attention of labor unions that sought to represent casino employees.

The legal landscape shifted in a big way in 2004, when the National Labor Relations Board determined that tribes must comply with the law under certain circumstances. Merely employing non-Indians, or catering to non-Indian patrons, was enough to trigger federal jurisdiction.

Efforts in the courts to overturn or blunt that interpretation have largely failed, leaving tribes to seek relief from Congress.

It's been a slow cause. Indian Country suffered two embarrassing setbacks when prior versions of the sovereignty bill came up for votes in the House more than a decade ago.


But tribes learned their lessons and worked hard to change the political winds. Since 2015, the bill has passed the House twice and with enough Democratic support to send a signal to the Senate, where S.63. was one of the first measures advanced by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the start of the 115th Congress back in 2017.

The last vote, though, put Democratic allies of Indian Country in a tough spot. Republicans decided to add H.R.986, their version of the sovereignty bill, to S.140, an unrelated tribal measure that had already passed the Senate.

During debate in January, a top Democrat accused Republicans of holding the non-controversial tribal provisions "hostage" as part of a "political stunt."

Those concerns seemed realized when GOP leaders later sent out a press release that described Democrats as "Flip Flops" who were unwilling to commit fully to tribal sovereignty.

Since S.140 was changed in the House, it has to be sent back to the Senate for another vote. Pata urges tribes to pushing for action as they make the rounds on Capitol Hill this week.

"That's an important message -- Please make sure that you have that in every conversation that you have," Pata told tribal leaders.

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
Tribal labor law rider killed by wide margin in House (June 27, 2005)
NCAI between 'rock and a hard place' on labor rider (September 13, 2004)
Tribal labor amendment fails in House vote (September 10, 2004)
Federal labor board expands jurisdiction over tribes (June 4, 2004)

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