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Rokita Statement: Markup of H.R. 511, "Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act"

Before I explain the technical changes included in the substitute amendment, I’d like to take a minute to discuss the importance of the broader legislation.

As the chairman said, the purpose of this bill is simple: to protect the sovereignty and promote governmental parity, of Native Americans by making it very clear that tribal businesses on tribal lands are free to operate with the same autonomy provided to any other sovereign body.

Since the early 1830s, our courts have held that “tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government.” Over the years, there has been widespread agreement on both sides of the aisle that these rights should be protected and that tribes should remain sovereign – free to govern and develop policies that best meet the needs of their members. Unfortunately, in recent years, the National Labor Relations Board has threatened that sovereignty by exerting control over tribal businesses.

For nearly 70 years, the NLRB respected Native American sovereignty, holding that tribes should be free from outside intervention. But in 2004, the board reversed course and overturned long-standing precedent with its San Manuel Bingo & Casino decision. Since then, the board has used a subjective test to determine when and where to exert its jurisdiction over Native American tribes. There shouldn’t be a test, as was said at the hearing. 

Not surprisingly, the Native American community strongly opposed the board’s move, and today, we continue to hear strong concerns with what many consider an attack on tribal sovereignty. Unfortunately, these concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears at the NLRB as the board continues to exert its authority over Native American tribes, and the problem is only getting worse and is creating uncertainty for tribal governments and tribally owned businesses, often in regions that can least afford it.

At a subcommittee hearing just last month, tribal leaders said they’ve seen “an increasingly aggressive approach to enforcement by the board, which creates unacceptable risks and uncertainties for all tribal nation rights under federal law and to their dignity as sovereigns.” If enacted, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act will put an end to the board’s overreach and give authority over labor relations back to tribal governments.

As Dr. Roe said at last month’s hearing, “We should never stand idly by while the sovereignty of Native Americans is threatened.” And that’s why we are here today. The legislation we’re considering will prevent the NLRB from asserting its jurisdiction over businesses owned by Native American tribes on tribal lands. It’s a bipartisan, commonsense proposal that will provide legal certainty to the Native American community and restore a standard that was in place for years before the misguided NLRB San Manuel decision.

I appreciate all that my colleagues have done over the years to move this issue forward, and I am very pleased that we’re taking this next step today. The technical change in the proposed substitute amendment clarifies that the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to tribal enterprises and institutions, as well as the tribal governments themselves. I urge my colleagues to support the substitute, as well as the underlying bill, to help provide Native American tribes the legal clarity and labor sovereignty they deserve.