Senator Cantwell’s Bipartisan Legislation Giving Tribal Leaders Equal Access to Social Security Passes Senate, Heads to President’s Desk

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

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – Today, bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and John Thune (R-SD) to correct a long-standing inequity in the Social Security Act that prevents elected tribal leaders from contributing to and accessing Social Security benefits passed the U.S. Senate and will head to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

The Tribal Social Security Fairness Act would allow tribal governments to “opt-in” to Social Security, pay the related taxes, and receive the retirement program’s benefits.

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

“Tribal council members in Washington state and throughout the country have dedicated their lives to service and improving their communities,” Senator Cantwell said. “They deserve the same access to Social Security that all other Americans have. I thank my colleagues for working with me to fix this injustice, and I will continue working to achieve retirement security for everyone in Indian Country.”

The Tribal Social Security Fairness Act was also introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Dave Reichert and co-sponsored by Rep. Suzan DelBene (WA-1) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA-6).

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 Native American Finance Officers Association, and Washington state tribes.

"No one should be punished by the federal government for serving their community. I have worked on retirement security for a number of years because it is important to encourage our youth to serve our communities.  The Tribal Social Security Fairness Act helps to remove barriers to tribal service for our young leaders," said Muckleshoot Tribal Chair, Virginia Cross. “The Muckleshoot Tribe is grateful to Senator Cantwell, Congressman Reichert, and the entire Washington delegation for championing this bill and helping to resolve a long standing injustice -- all Americans should have access to the Social Security system."

“With this bill, leaders across Indian Country will have long overdue parity with other governmental leaders," stated Tina Danforth, President of the Native American Finance Officers Association. "Elected tribal leaders will now be able to 'opt-in' to the Social Security program, which many Americans rely on for a safety net.”

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.