Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have teamed up with United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) in a bipartisan push to urge U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to establish an Office of Tribal Affairs within the Treasury Department. Establishing a dedicated office would help to provide enough permanent personnel to help improve the department’s tribal consultation process, strengthen the department’s relationship with tribal nations, and provide more in-house expertise on matters affecting tribal nations.
Treasury has long had a role in matters, including tax and finance issues, that have seriously affected the welfare and sovereignty of some tribal nations. This role has increased over time and has become extremely important during the COVID-19 pandemic, since Congress has charged Treasury with the crucial responsibility of disbursing to tribal nations billions of dollars in relief funds. The Internal Revenue Service, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Community Development Financial Institutions Program, and the Office of Recovery Programs are just some of the Treasury components that make decisions with enormous impact on tribal nations on COVID-19 relief implementation, tribal economic development, taxation and tax incentives, capital finance and capital needs, trade policy, and more.
“The recent tribal consultations and interactions between Treasury and tribal nations underscore the need for sufficient, dedicated, in-house expertise at Treasury on tribal policy matters. The establishment of such an office has support from Indian Country and would improve Treasury’s ability to fulfill its trust responsibilities to respect the nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and tribal nations,” wrote the lawmakers.
President Biden’s January 26, 2021, memorandum affirms the importance of tribal consultation—and states that it is his “priority” to make “regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations cornerstones of Federal Indian policy.” Treasury has acknowledged this commitment as well; the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury has “reiterated the importance of the nation-to-nation consultation process.” An Office of Tribal Affairs would help achieve this.
“Although the pandemic has underscored the urgency of Treasury having proper in-house capacity to address tribal issues appropriately, this need existed before the pandemic and before this administration, and, absent institutional changes at the department, it will continue to exist after the pandemic and after this administration,” wrote the lawmakers.
The senators have requested a response no later than October 13, 2021. The full text of the letter is available here.