Trust reform legislation put off in Congress
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Legislative efforts to fix the broken Indian trust have effectively been shelved for the year as Congress prepares to leave town for the upcoming election.

Although lawmakers of both chambers plan to reconvene in mid-November, their work will focus on the budget and high-profile issues such as health care, energy policy and homeland security. The shifting priorities leave trust reform on the sideline as tribal leaders and their Congressional allies attempt to work around a reticent executive branch.

"The ball is in the [Bush] administration's court to break the impasse," said Jay Carson, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Daschle yesterday criticized Secretary of Interior Gale Norton for what he said was her failure to make material progress on a problem that dates to the 1800s. He chastised Bush officials for balking at a legislative package that has gained support in Indian Country.

"Literally millions of dollars are denied Indian people every year the administration delays meaningful trust reform," he said.

In an October 1 letter to Daschle, Norton pointed to "substantial agreement" with tribes on some areas of reform. She said the department supports the creation of a high-level trust official and a restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the regional and reservation level.

"Clearly, we agree that major reform is necessary," she wrote.

But tribal leaders have expressed frustration with the administration's resistance on other aspects. The Interior, the Department of Justice and the White House oppose legislation to enforce asset management standards, create an independent oversight entity and ensure a tribal right to sue for breach of trust.

"The tribes know what they want," said Geri Small, president of Montana's Northern Cheyenne Tribe. "We have worked on many options. Obviously, it's not to the department's satisfaction."

Daschle, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) have drafted a bill to reform the management of billions of dollars of Indian funds. Tribal leaders like Small and organizations including the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal group, and the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association, which represents more than 50 tribes, have taken advantage of the "placeholder" legislation to make their views known.

The lawmakers offered the Interior a chance to do the same. But no suggestions have been received, according to Congressional aides.

The administration also has not proposed alternate solutions. Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb testified against the bill at a July hearing.

Coinciding with the legislative impasse is the breakdown of a joint federal-tribal task force on trust reform. After nine months of meetings, Interior officials informed tribal leaders of their intent to make key changes without tribal consent.

A court mandate regarding the management of individual -- but not tribal -- funds forced the administration into a tough position, McCaleb said at the September 26 meeting.

The panel was to convene next week in Small's state but the meeting won't occur until December. Despite the rough spots, Small hoped another BITAM, Norton's rejected proposal to strip the BIA of its trust duties, was not in the works.

"I don't foresee [the administration] doing anything without the tribes agreeing," she said.

"I don't want to be wrong."

Get the Bill:
The Indian Trust Asset and Trust Fund Management and Reform Act of 2002 (S.2212)

Relevant Links:
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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Norton drafts Indian land grab (9/26)
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Norton's denials ring hollow (9/20)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
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