- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sometimes it takes the government a long time to do something.

A really long time.

In fact, regulations to implement legislation passed during the William Howard Taft administration are just now getting around to being implemented, some 103 years later. Taft signed the Buy Indian Act into law on June 25, 1910, to give an economic boost to American Indian populations on reservations. But it has taken more than a century for the Interior Department to draft and approve the rules required to officially begin enforcing the legislation.

The bill requires the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to give preference in funding and contracts to American Indian-owned businesses, a similar practice employed by “set-aside” policies many government agencies use to support businesses owned by targeted groups such as veterans, minorities or women.

But the language of the 1910 law was ambiguous in how exactly this would be done. It reads in part: “So far as may be practicable Indian labor shall be employed, and purchases of the products (including, but not limited to printing, notwithstanding any other law) of Indian industry may be made in open market in the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.”

It took the Interior Department more than 100 years and 28 secretaries to decide how to define “discretion” and finish building the rules and regulations to implement the legislation. The final ruling on the law was dropped into place in July.

“The publication of this final rule to implement the Buy Indian Act is a major accomplishment for the administration and a win-win for both Indian Affairs and the American Indian and Alaska Native business community,” Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said back in June. “We expect this will help increase economic activity in tribal communities and provide greater employment opportunities where these businesses are located.”

Mr. Washburn’s statement did not refer to the slight time lag between the law’s passage and its implementation.

The Interior Department has bought goods and services from American Indian companies, but only in 1982 did interest resurface in laying down specific regulations. After working off and on for 30 years, the last piece finally became effective July 8 — rules for administrative procedures used by various Interior Department bureaus.

When the law was enacted, the Republican Taft was halfway through his only term in the White House, the country had 46 states, the Titanic was under construction, and a question on the U.S. census that year asked individuals if they were veterans of the Civil War.

It’s estimated that about $45 million will go to American Indian-owned and -operated businesses each year, but that number could grow, said Paula Woessner, who wrote about the legislation for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

“The potential economic impact could be much greater, because the rules authorize the Secretary of the Interior to delegate the buy-Indian mandate to other agencies in the department, such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management,” she wrote.

Under the law, the bureau would be required to solicit bids for contracts from Indian-owned businesses and would be able to seek other offers only if no Indian-owned companies applied or if a single company applied but didn’t have an acceptable offer.

The only exception to the policy is construction that takes place outside of American Indian lands and reservations, Ms. Woessner said.

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