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Challenges and Needs in Indian Country

With the convening of the 112th Congress, I became the Ranking Member on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. Although I have left the Natural Resources Committee after having served there for more than 30 years, I intend to remain an active supporter of Native issues.

We had many accomplishments under my leadership as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. During the past four years, Congress, with your help, permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and enacted the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, resolving the Cobell v. Salazar and four water-rights settlements, into law. Additionally, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a legislative fix to the Carcieri v. Salazar litigation, several native-recognition bills as well as the tribal self-governance bill.

Together, we can continue to achieve more successes during this Congress and beyond. The Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure plays an important role in Indian country with jurisdiction over several agencies and laws that impact Native Americans on a daily basis. Our jurisdiction extends to the Economic Development Agency, Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard, to name a few. The Committee is about encouraging economic development—by improving the Nations’ infrastructure and through the programs implemented by the Economic Development Administration. With your help, I intend to use my leadership on the Committee to assist Native Americans on their road to economic recovery and growth.

Over the years, economic development has been a top priority for Indian country. And for good reason: You see and experience the poverty and unemployment that the rest of us cite as statistics to overcome. Indian country is often compared to third world countries, but this is unacceptable in the United States.

The lack of physical infrastructure has been repeatedly identified as one of the primary barriers to economic development in Indian country. Without water, sewers, roads and other basic infrastructure, economic development cannot occur. Another frequently cited barrier is the need for technical and planning assistance for tribal governments. Both are crucial to successful, long-term economic development, and both are provided by the Economic Development Administration.

Although many legislative fixes are needed, I am now in the position to focus on specific fixes within the Committee’s jurisdiction. With Indian country’s help, I will work on issues such as improving your physical infrastructure, ensuring safe and secure communities, streamlining agency processes, and respecting tribal sovereignty with the direct inclusion of tribes in various laws. I will ensure that tribal interests are not an afterthought on bills that move through the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

Within the next few weeks, I will circulate draft language to ensure that Indian tribes are treated as the government entities that they are for emergency management purposes and that you enjoy safer communities. Moreover, draft language will be circulated to provide Indian tribes with the same direct access to federal surplus buildings and lands that states enjoy. Requiring tribes to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs does nothing but create more paperwork and administrative burden for the tribes and the Bureau.

Indian tribes must be included at the outset in the reauthorization of broader bills within the Committee’s jurisdiction. This will start with the reauthorization of the broader highway bill that the Committee will soon be considering. Finally, I will examine whether and how to expand the tribal self-governance program to Federal agencies within the Committee’s jurisdiction. Self-governance has been one of the most successful programs in Indian country. The only way to continue the success is to expand the agencies and programs to which it applies.

While I have identified several priority areas that I have already started working on, I cannot do this alone—nor should I. There are many issues that need to be addressed, and Indian country knows them best. You can help me by letting me know which laws need to be improved and how. In the coming months, I hope to conduct a roundtable with tribal leaders to hear more about the needs of Indian country and how the Committee can help you meet those needs. I look forward to working with you in the 112th Congress and beyond.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, is the Ranking Member on the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.