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Getting Washington Out of Indian Country

Sen. John Barrasso
11/20/15

Ninety-five million dollars. That’s the amount of money the Southern Ute tribe of Colorado is losing because of Washington’s invasive bureaucracy and overregulation of Indian Country.

This astounding number came from tribal council member Mike Olguin in his testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which I chair.

This claim is all too common, and accurately applies to Indian tribes all across America. That lost revenue could have provided health care for families, built safer roads on reservations or supported scholarships for deserving students. It also could have helped provide jobs for tribal members.

The federal government often stands in the way of prosperity—the impact is most profound in Indian Country.

Unemployment on reservations is shockingly high—up to 50 percent among some tribes – and hope is often in desperately short supply. Still, Washington bureaucracy and overregulation contributes to delays, costs and extraordinary paperwork for Indian tribes, developers, entrepreneurs and program managers.

According to a June 2015 Government Accountability Office report, red tape from the Bureau of Indian Affairs has dramatically hampered energy development across Indian Country. The report found that the BIA’s inefficiency has led to missed developmental opportunities.

In some cases, the agency took several years to review transactional documents. Because of such red tape, one developer noted in the report that it is 65 percent more expensive to develop energy on Indian land than non-Indian land.

When the unemployment rate in some Indian communities stands at more than 50 percent, this level of bureaucracy is unacceptable. Washington should be doing more to assist tribes in economic and natural resource development, and to promote job-creation strategies in Indian Country.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has held several hearings on economic development-related topics including entrepreneurship, energy development and access to capital. The committee recently held a listening session on taxation issues facing Indian Country. We’ve also held four field hearings to better understand the unique challenges for tribes in Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma and Alaska.

While it is important that the committee get out of Washington and get to Indian Country, we also need to get Washington out of Indian Country.

That means simplifying federal regulations and increasing local control. This will help to empower—not hinder—tribal self-governance and prosperity.

The first bill I introduced as chairman was the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act. This legislation will empower tribes to develop their own energy resources on their lands.

It will also streamline certain approvals of many energy development transactions, such as business agreements, right-of-ways and leases on Indian lands.

More energy development means more jobs. It means more money for tribal communities and more American energy contributing to our energy security.

In Wyoming, I have seen firsthand how energy development supports Indian Country. The Wind River Reservation of Wyoming is home to two tribes: the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone. Both receive royalties on oil revenue, and both have used these royalties to help their communities.

The committee passed this bill, and it is pending before the Senate. This legislation is a win for Indian tribes. It is an empowerment opportunity that must be passed by Congress and signed into law as quickly as possible.

Tribal needs don’t stop with energy development.

Earlier this year, I introduced the Department of the Interior Tribal Self-Governance Act of 2015. This bill streamlines bureaucracy that blocks tribes from administering critical Bureau of Indian Affairs programs, including law enforcement, tribal courts, forest management, and fisheries.

Tribes have succeeded in reducing red tape when administering health care programs of the Indian Health Service—a federal sister agency. They should have the same flexibility with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Senate passed this bill, and we are waiting for the House of Representatives to act.

Both of these bills were developed based on discussions with and among tribal leaders. The best ideas and solutions for Indian Country come from Indian Country. Washington should get out of the way and let tribes develop their own ideas on how to help their members succeed.

When they are unified and engaged, Indian tribal leaders have achieved remarkable results.

I’ve seen groups like the National Steering Committee for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and the Tribal Self Governance Consortium debate and develop real consensus and solutions.

Indian Country innovation and input is critical to addressing federal policies that have harmed Indian people. There is a great opportunity to continue this kind of work in economic development.

I encourage tribal leaders and organizations to work with our committee. Together we can produce the kind of ideas and solutions to create long-term prosperity for tribes, their communities and their members.

Together, we can get these important bills signed into law and find a pathway to more success for Indian Country.

Senator Barrasso is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

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