Cantwell, Thune: Tribal Leaders Deserve Equal Access to Social Security

Since 1959, members of tribal councils have been unable to contribute to or access Social Security benefits

The “Tribal Social Security Fairness Act” would allow council members to opt-in to Social Security and help them achieve retirement security

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and John Thune (R-SD) introduced the “Tribal Social Security Fairness Act” to correct a long-standing inequity in the Social Security Act that prevents elected tribal leaders from contributing to and accessing Social Security benefits.  The bill would allow tribal governments to “opt-in” to Social Security, pay the related taxes, and receive the retirement program’s benefits.

Tribal populations are at a significant disadvantage in preparing for retirement. On average, tribal communities face lower wages and higher rates of disability than other populations, which limits the future income they can count on from retirement plans.

“The tribal council members I work with have dedicated their careers to the service of their communities,” said Cantwell. “It is an injustice that due to a 60-year-old flawed interpretation of the tax code, they do not have the same access to Social Security as all other Americans. Senator Thune and I are committed to achieving retirement security for everyone in Indian Country.”

“This is a good-government bill that would put tribal governments on a level playing field with their non-tribal counterparts by giving them the option to pay into and receive benefits from the Social Security program, just like nearly every other working American is already able to do,” said Thune. “Passing this bill should be a no-brainer, which is why I’m hopeful we’ll be able to consider it in the Senate as soon as possible.”

The legislation has the support of the National Congress of American Indians, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, and the Quinault Indian Nation.

When the Social Security Act was originally passed in 1935, the program was not made available to state and local officials. Lawmakers assumed that the various state pension systems would address their retirement needs. The law was amended in 1951 to allow states to enter into agreements with the Social Security Administration to allow those state and local employees without coverage to access Social Security, but no provision was made for tribal officials.  The IRS later declared that council members’ earnings were ineligible to be contributed to Social Security and thus they would not have access to the program’s benefits.