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'Technicalities' of Miller pension amendment touch on sovereignty

WASHINGTON - Days after the camp of Rep. George Miller claimed his pension amendment in an Iraqi supplemental spending bill was technical in nature - by contrast with the substantive amendment on Indian pensions that House Democrats scuttled - research into the deep reaches of congressional procedure suggests that Miller's provision doesn't qualify as technical in nature after all.

The Miller amendment modified certain time frames in the treatment of multi-year pension plans. After related provisions by another lawmaker are accounted for, the amendment's revenue implications weighed in at a government-estimated $12 million - the merest rounding error in some quarters, but enough to convince tax specialists, speaking on the record but not for attribution, that the amendment was substantive rather than technical in nature.

In addition, for tax amendments to be considered truly technical within the regular order of congressional business, both the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives and the Senate Finance Committee must agree that they are technical - a contribution to so-called comity between the two chambers - and the Treasury Department must be consulted, according to senior staff on the Senate Finance Committee.

None of that appears to have happened in this case. Aaron Albright, press secretary to Miller on the Education and Labor Committee, said he would have to consult others on the ''hyper-technical'' procedural questions, and wasn't available again before press time.

The rejected Indian-specific amendment sought to revoke three lines from last year's Pension Protection Act that require tribes to distinguish between commercial and government activities for purposes of employee pensions. The burden of compliance on tribes is considerable, according to pension planners and tax professionals working within Indian country. To comply with the pension provision by Oct. 1, as required by law, tribes will have to spend hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to knowledgeable estimates. States are not required to make the same distinction.

The three lines at issue made it into the Pension Protection Act on the initiative of Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif. As chairman in 2006 of both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation, Thomas chaired the conference committee of House and Senate members convened to work out differences between the separate versions of the bill passed in each chamber. In that capacity, Thomas inserted the lines that require tribes to distinguish between the revenue streams in employee pensions.

Concern has arisen in Indian country, anonymously to be sure, over why repealing a plainly inequitable provision snuck into law on the Republican watch should be difficult to repeal now that Democrats enjoy the majority in Congress. Miller, D-Calif., chairs the Education and Labor Committee in the House, which has significant jurisdiction over pension issues. In a previous interview, Albright said Miller would be willing to revisit the Indian pension provision in later legislation, but needs to be convinced of a better way to protect tribal employee pensions.

''The issue is first and foremost a sovereignty issue,'' said Tom Rodgers of Carlyle Consulting, a former tax aid to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. ''It is about treating tribal governments like state and local governments, no better or worse. It is not about labor organizing, nor is it about creating a class of second-class sovereigns. Therefore we look forward to honoring the words of Representative Miller's spokesperson to revisit this issue in other legislation.''