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Commerce Law Could Be Key to Establishing Tribal Economic Development Council

For those clamoring for the president to appoint a tribal economic development council, the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented, say tribal advocates.

For those clamoring for the president to appoint a tribal economic development council, the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented, say tribal advocates—and he wouldn’t have to use an executive order to do so, either.

RELATED: Pushing Obama to Appoint a Tribal Economic Development Council

There has been a law on the books since 2000, the Indian Tribal Regulatory Reform and Business Act, which would allow the president to appoint a council filled with tribal leaders and business executives that could work together to develop plans to improve the economic forecast for Indian country, especially for struggling reservations. Recent testimony before Congress indicates that some reservations currently have a 50 percent unemployment rate, and many tribes have dire poverty rates and intense infrastructure and housing needs.

Passed in the waning days of the Clinton administration, three presidents to date – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama – have missed the opportunity the law offers the Executive Branch to establish such a council.

“The Department of Commerce has authority over this, and in 14 years no one has bothered to launch it,” says Paul Moorehead, an Indian affairs lawyer with Powers Pyle. “President Obama could do it with a phone call to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.”

Moorehead says the creation of the council under this law could be an “attractive option” for the president because it has already been enacted into law, and it does not require new congressional action—not a light concern given the current political climate with a Republican House that has been quite keen lately to call out the president for taking executive actions.

The last time a tribal economic council convened on the federal level was during the Reagan administration in 1984, four years before Indian gaming was ever regulated by Congress. The Department of the Interior has also gathered tribal economic and labor data for years, but there have been many problems turning the data into a useful action plan.

RELATED: Frustration Surrounds New Tribal Labor Force Report

“A lot has happened in and out of Indian country in the last 30 years, and it’s probably time to review current challenges and inhibitors to growth and development in tribal communities,” Moorehead says. “This regulatory reform authority [called for by the 2000 law] could do just that. Of the 21 members of the regulatory reform authority, 21 would be tribal leaders or their designees and four would be private sector representatives.”

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Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) tells Indian Country Today Media Network that she is supportive of the Commerce Department establishing a tribal economic council under the 2000 law.

“I think that it would be totally appropriate for tribal leadership and expertise to be involved,” says Moore, who sits on the House Financial Services Committee. “I think it is important to get the expertise from the tribes. I certainly would support having an official group.”

Moore warns, though, that she would not want to see Natives seated on a “gratuitous” council that did not receive attention from the uppermost levels of government.

“Native Americans also ought to try to develop and empanel those people that they think need to be at the table,” Moore adds, pointing to the importance of tribal self-determination.

Moore has in the past advocated for a senior-level position to be nourished in the Commerce Department focused specifically on tribal economic development. And of particular interest to her is for the administration to review and take action on another languishing tribal law passed in 2000, called the Native American Business Development, Trade Promotion and Tourism Act.

In January, Moore sent a letter to Pritzker, then new on the job, lamenting that the law has never been implemented. “The Act obligate the Secretary of Commerce to undertake a number of actions to increase business activity and to strengthen tribal economies, with particular emphasis on exports and international trade, and the development of tribal, inter-tribal, and regional tourism projects,” the congresswoman wrote. “[T]ribes would benefit greatly from the considerable resources and expertise of the Department of Commerce to assist tribal communities.…”

Margaret Cummisky, Assistant Secretary for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at Commerce, responded to Moore in turn with a letter, stating that the department is “actively engaged in helping tribal communities expand their economic footprint in all areas outlined in the Act,” yet she admitted, “[T]here is still much work to be done to create sustainable job growth in tribal communities.”

American Indian citizens have lamented that the voices of their communities often get lost in the bureaucracy of the federal government, which is one reason why a council appointed by Obama with tribal leaders sitting on it could help. A White House Native Affairs Council seated by the president last year includes federal agency heads, but no tribal leaders have been invited to join to date.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) says that the 2000 Commerce law would go a long way in helping tribal voices to be heard on a variety of pressing economic issues.

“As I read and understand the law, the president still has the authority to form the council in order to facilitate the identification and subsequent removal of obstacles to investment, business development, and the creation of wealth within Native American communities,” says Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. “Should he choose to do so at any point in time, I would certainly support it.”