Videos & Speeches

Mr. President, I thank the Chair for the opportunity to speak this afternoon. I am also pleased to see on the floor my colleague from North Dakota, Senator Heitkamp. She and I have a legislative interest in a matter now pending before the House of Representatives, and it is at least my desire to see the Senate utilize this opportunity of a bill passing the House to also be considered by the Senate and hopefully be approved. While it has been a challenge throughout this year and throughout this session to get legislation to the floor and voted on, I would not want us to pass up the chance for this legislation to be approved and sent to the President for signature.

The legislation we are speaking about is the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act. The House of Representatives, as I said, is considering H.R. 3043 this week. This is legislation I am absolutely certain will enhance the economic opportunities and the quality of life for our Native Americans in this country.

The Constitution states that a core responsibility of the Federal Government is to promote the general welfare of the people. The Federal Government has a trust responsibility to protect tribal interests. These two objectives come together in this legislation. It certainly would be an understatement to say that the Federal Government over the years has fulfilled its trust responsibility. We know that to not be the case.

In an effort to fill that void, tribal governments have taken actions to meet their tribal members' needs with initiatives such as cultural programs and education and social services and health care.

Unfortunately, over a period of time, those benefits have been treated as income and those benefits have been subject to the Internal Revenue Service Code.

We need to make certain we don't add to the burden that tribes too often have encountered from the Federal Government and that these benefits would not be subject to income taxes and these benefits and the tribes will not be subject to IRS audits because of them.

The Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act extends to Native Americans the same tax privileges that are provided by our states; namely, that the value of government services provided by the tribes to their members, just like the services provided by a state to its citizens, would be excluded for tax purposes. Federal and state governments have enjoyed the privilege of having such services as education, social welfare, health care programs, housing, as well as cultural programs exempt from that taxation. Native Americans have not been as fortunate.

The House is close to correcting this problem, and it is my plea and hope that the Senate will follow suit this week. The IRS recently issued a notice that establishes the tribal gender welfare exclusion. It is a matter of treasury policy, and this is appreciated. It is a step in the right direction, but we want to make certain that this policy is extended and codified.

The general welfare issue should be put into law to protect against future policy changes, and among other provisions this legislation establishes a tribal advisory committee within the Department of the Treasury to advise the Secretary on Indian tax policy and also declares that any ambiguities of the act will be resolved in favor of tribal governments. It directs the IRS field agents to be educated and trained in matters of Federal Indian law and government trust responsibilities.

This is a reasonable commonsense, constitutional piece of legislation. It fosters fairness within our Tax Code and promotes better understanding of the Federal Government's trust relationships.

Four years ago similar exclusion rules for Native Americans' health benefits were passed. We have before us now the opportunity to clarify the exclusion as it should be. This legislation makes a lot of sense. It adheres to the Constitution which recognizes tribes as sovereign nations with the authority to provide for their peoples. This has been affirmed many times by Congress in the past. It is clearly part of our U.S. Constitution.

The economic benefits are obvious. Our tribal territories, reservations, our Native Americans need not be worrying about the onerous IRS audits and should not be paying taxes when no one else is required to pay taxes on similar benefits.

This legislation is revenue neutral, something that is very pleasing. The Joint Committee on Taxation has deemed any impact on the revenue of our Federal Government to be negligible.

As a person who cares a lot about the fiscal condition of our country, we ought to be reducing our deficit and boosting our economy. This piece of legislation does not increase the deficit, and it does boost the economy, particularly of tribes across the nation. Here in the Senate, Senator Heitkamp and I introduced S. 1507. It is a companion bill to the one the House is considering. This piece of legislation has broad bipartisan support, and more than 20 Senators from Alaska to Georgia have joined us in this effort.

I am grateful for the members of the Finance Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee who lent their support to this legislation. I am not a member of either one of those committees, but there are four tribes in Kansas and I have an interest in their well-being as well as that of all Native Americans.

Native Americans are not seeking to play here by different rules. In fact, it is quite the opposite. They simply want to enjoy the same benefits accorded any other government in our country. They emphasize to me the principle of tribal sovereignty and self-government. This legislation reinforces those principles.

More than 40 tribes in 24 states, nearly a dozen Indian organizations and a number of regional tribal organizations representing tens of thousands of Native Americans supported this legislation. It is not just Native Americans. In fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has recognized this legislation as one that will foster economic development and supports its passage.

As we are preparing to depart Washington, DC, and take time away from the nation's capital, it would be a terrible mistake on our part and a missed opportunity if we don't take advantage of House action this week while the Senate is here in session this week to see that this legislation is approved.

My hope is that this could be accomplished by unanimous consent, and I know Senator Heitkamp and others and I have been talking to members of the committees as well as the leadership of the Senate to see that we accomplish this.

It is a wrong that can be righted. It is a wrong that should be righted quickly and not at a later date. This certainly is one of those pieces of legislation that is a win-win for all.

If we see the House pass the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act, I urge my colleagues to join with me, Senator Heitkamp, and Republican and Democrat Senators who are supportive of this legislation, to see that this legislation arrives on the President's desk in the most expedient manner possible.