The new year typically marks a time for making bold commitments and setting fresh goals. It is also a good time to look at whether we met last year’s goals.
Last January, as the new chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I outlined an aggressive set of priorities. It included jobs, energy and natural-resource development, health care, juvenile justice, and tribal self-governance.
This agenda was aimed at enhancing tribal self-determination. During the first session of this Congress, we saw several major Indian bills pass the Senate with large bipartisan support.
The first of these was the Department of the Interior Tribal Self-Governance Act. It was developed with significant input from tribal leaders. It gives tribes greater certainty in taking over the administration of programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A similar bill had gathered dust for years in the Senate, never going any further than the committee. Last year, we finally saw it pass the Senate.
We also passed the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments. This streamlines the approval process of many energy development transactions that tribes seek to conduct on their lands. These include business agreements, right-of-ways, and leases.
Safety issues are critical to many Indian priorities, starting with protecting children. Last year, the Senate passed a bill to help protect native children in tribal foster care systems.
These bills are awaiting action in the House of Representatives.
In finally passing a reauthorization of the national highway program, Congress incorporated key pieces of a tribal transportation bill passed by our committee. This means increased funding for tribal road safety projects and lower government administrative fees, so tribes can use more of their funds to complete transportation projects. Both of these issues are top tribal priorities.
With all the successes we had last year, there are several measures still awaiting Senate approval. In 2016, we will be pushing toward the finish line on the remaining bills and seeking new approaches to other longstanding issues.
New bills will include the Interior Improvement Act, which reforms the way land is taken into trust by the government; the SURVIVE Act, which will provide necessary resources to tribal victims of crime; and the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, which restores self-governance to Indian Country.
We will also be taking up legislation reauthorizing important housing programs, holding the government accountable to finish old irrigation projects, and doing more to expedite safety projects on tribal roads across Indian Country.
As chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs – and as a doctor who practiced medicine for 25 years – I remain deeply concerned about the significant challenges facing the Indian health system. This year, the committee’s first order of business will be an examination of the substandard quality of Indian health care in the Great Plains.
We will also consider how to best improve communication capabilities across Indian Country. In too many Indian communities, cellphone and Internet access are not available. Better communication connections are needed to boost local economies and create jobs.
The committee will continue to examine the Bureau of Indian Education to determine what improvements are needed to prepare students of today to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Last year, we conducted two listening sessions on economic development, and held oversight hearings on juvenile justice, youth suicide, addiction, and the unconscionable aftermath of the Environmental Protection Agency’s negligence in the Gold King Mine disaster. These events have set the stage for new initiatives and potential legislation to consider in the remaining days of this Congress.
There is a lot of work ahead of us. I remain committed to advancing the priorities set forth when I became chairman. I challenge the Obama administration and Indian tribes to work with Congress in addressing these priorities. Together, we can build a prosperous and thriving Indian Country.
U.S. Senator John Barrasso, M.D. is chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.