In 1977, the Senate re‑established the Committee on Indian Affairs, making it a temporary Select Committee (February 4, 1977, S. Res. 4, Section 105, 95th Congress, 1st Sess. (1977), as amended). The Select Committee was to disband at the close of the 95th Congress, but following several term extensions, the Senate voted to make the Committee permanent on June 6, 1984. The Committee has jurisdiction to study the unique problems of American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native peoples and to propose legislation to alleviate these difficulties. These issues include, but are not limited to, Indian education, economic development, land management, trust responsibilities, health care, and claims against the United States. Additionally, all legislation proposed by Members of the Senate that specifically pertains to American Indians, Native Hawaiians, or Alaska Natives is under the jurisdiction of the Committee.
Until 1946, when a legislative reorganization act abolished both the House and Senate Committees on Indian Affairs, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs had been in existence since the early 19th century. After 1946, Indian affairs legislative and oversight jurisdiction was vested in subcommittees of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate. While this subcommittee arrangement may not have specifically reflected a diminishment of the consideration given Indian affairs by the Congress, the revised arrangement historically coincided with a 20‑year hiatus in Indian affairs known as the “Termination Era” ‑‑ a period in which the prevailing policy of the United States was to terminate the Federal relationship with Indian Tribes, including the transfer of jurisdiction over tribal lands to the states.
By the mid‑1960’s, this Termination philosophy was in decline as a failed policy and Congress began to include Indian Tribes in legislation designed to rebuild the social infrastructure of the Nation and provide economic opportunities for economically‑depressed areas. In the early 1970’s, the Termination era was decisively ended with the enactment of the Menominee Restoration Act of 1973. Although a number of important legislative initiatives affecting Indians were enacted in the early 1970’s, it became clear that the existing subcommittee structure was not providing an adequate forum for legislating appropriate solutions to problems confronting Indian country. Legislative jurisdiction over Indian affairs was fragmented among a number of committees. Overall, more than 10 committees in Congress were responsible for Indian affairs, a situation which resulted in a sometimes disjointed treatment of Indian affairs and in an often haphazard development of Federal Indian policy.
In 1973, Senator James Abourezk introduced Senate Joint Resolution 133 to establish a Federal commission to review all aspects of policy, law, and administration relating to affairs of the United States with American Indian tribes and people. The Senate and the House of Representatives both adopted Senate Joint Resolution 133 and on January 2, 1975, the Resolution was signed into law by the President, thus establishing the American Indian Policy Review Commission (Commission) (Public Law 93‑580). As the work of this Commission progressed, it became readily apparent that a Senate committee with full legislative and oversight authority was needed to receive the report of the Commission and to act upon its recommendations. Indeed, one of the final recommendations of the Commission was that a full‑fledged Indian Affairs Committee be established in the Senate.
At the same time the Commission was formulating its recommendation for the establishment of an Indian Affairs Committee, the Senate was developing a far‑reaching proposal for reorganization of the entire Senate committee system. Under this proposal, the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs under the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs was to be abolished with its natural resource functions to be distributed among other newly formed Senate committees and its human resources functions to be transferred to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
In view of the pending report of the Commission and its anticipated recommendations, however, the Senate revamped its committee reorganization proposal to include the establishment of a temporary select committee to receive the Commission’s report and to act on its recommendations. Thus, there was included within Senate Resolution 4 of February 4, 1977, the Committee System Reorganization Amendments of 1977, a provision to establish a Select Committee on Indian Affairs with full jurisdiction over all proposed legislation and other matters relating to Indian affairs. With the commencement of the 96th Congress, the Select Committee on Indian Affairs was to expire and jurisdiction over Indian matters was to be transferred to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
As the Select Committee on Indian Affairs grappled with the report of the Commission and the many other Indian issues that were presented to it during the 95th Congress, it became increasingly evident that if the Congress was to continue to meet its constitutional, legal, and historical responsibilities in the area of Indian affairs, an ongoing legislative committee with adequate expertise and resources should be re‑established in the Senate.
Senate Resolution 405, to make the Select Committee on Indian Affairs a permanent committee of the Senate, was introduced by Senator Abourezk on February 22, 1978. The measure was amended by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to extend the life of the committee for two years until January 2, 1981, and was agreed to by the Senate on October 14, 1978. In the 96th Congress, Senator John Melcher, who was at the time Chairman of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced Senate Resolution 448 to make it a permanent committee. The Resolution had 29 cosponsors, and was reported by the Committee on Rules and Administration with an amendment to extend the Select Committee to January 2, 1984, and to expand the membership to seven members commencing in the 97th Congress. Senate Resolution 448 was adopted by the Senate on December 11, 1980.
On April 28, 1983, Senator Mark Andrews, Chairman of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs in the 98th Congress, introduced Senate Resolution 127 to make the Committee a permanent committee. This Resolution had 28 cosponsors. On November 1, 1983, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration voted unanimously to report the Resolution without amendment, and the Resolution was so reported on November 2, 1983 (S. Rept. 98‑294). On November 18, 1983, the last day of the first session of the 98th Congress, the Senate agreed to an extension of the Select Committee to July 1, 1984, in order to allow time for debate. By the time Senate Resolution 127 was brought to the floor for consideration there were 60 cosponsors. On June 6, 1984, the Select Committee on Indian Affairs was made a permanent committee of the Senate (S. Res. 127, 98th Cong., 2nd Sess.). In 1993, the Select Committee on Indian Affairs was re-designated as the Committee on Indian Affairs (Sec. 25, S. Res. 71, 103rd Cong., 1st Sess.).
The number of members serving on the Committee has expanded since its formation in 1977. At the time the Committee was formed in the 95th Congress, there were five members. The membership remained at five in the 96th Congress, but grew to seven in the 97th Congress. The membership increased to nine in the 99th Congress, and by the 101st Congress, the Committee membership grew to 10. In the 102nd Congress, the membership of the Committee expanded to 16 members. A further increase occurred in the beginning of the 103rd Congress when the membership was expanded to 18.
In the 104th Congress, the Senate only named 17 of its members to serve on the Committee, and elected Senator John McCain as Chairman and Senator Daniel K. Inouye as Vice‑Chairman. The Senate further amended the membership of the Committee to 16 later in the 104th Congress.
In the 104th Congress, the Senate agreed to amend again the membership of the Committee from 16 to 14 members. In the 107th Congress, the Senate appointed 15 members to the Committee. In May, 2001 Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an Independent. At that time Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell relinquished the Chairmanship to become Vice Chairman of the Committee and Senator Inouye became Chairman. In the 108th Congress, Senator Campbell re-assumed the Chairmanship and Senator Inouye served as Vice Chairman with 14 members on the Committee. In the 109th Congress, Senator McCain served as Chairman and Senator Byron L. Dorgan became Vice Chairman. In the 110th Congress, Senator Byron L. Dorgan became Chairman of the Committee and Senator Craig Thomas became Vice Chairman. Senator Thomas passed away on June 4, 2007. Senator Lisa Murkowski became Vice Chairman of the Committee on July 19, 2007, and served for the remainder of the Congress. Senator John Barrasso was added to the minority membership of the Committee to maintain the total membership of 15 for the 110th Congress. In the 111th Congress, Senator Dorgan continued to serve as Chairman of the Committee, and Senator Barrasso became Vice Chairman. Senators Crapo, Johanns and Franken joined the Committee in the 111th Congress. Committee membership remained at 15 in the 112th Congress. Senator Daniel K. Akaka served as Chairman of the Committee, and Vice Chairman Barrasso continued to serve in his position. Senator Hoeven was the only new member of the Committee. Senator Maria Cantwell served as Chairwoman in the 113th Congress for one year, at which time she relinquished the Chairmanship to Senator Jon Tester in 2014, with Senator Barrasso remaining as Vice Chairman. In the 114th Congress, Senator John Barrasso served as Chairman of the Committee, and Senator Jon Tester became Vice Chairman. Senators John Hoeven and Tom Udall became Chairman and Vice Chairman, respectively, in the 115th Congress. Senator Cortez Masto joined the Committee. Senator Kyle joined the Committee upon the passing of Senator McCain. In the 116th Congress, Senator Hoeven remained as Chairman of the Committee, with Senator Tom Udall serving as Vice Chairman. Senator McSally along with Senator Smith joined the Committe. Senator Brian Schatz became Chairman of the Committee in the 117th Congress, as Senator Lisa Murkowski served as Vice Chairman. Senator Rounds joined the Commitee, as well as Senator Luján. In the 118th Congress Senator Schatz remained Chairman of the Committee, while Senator Murkowski served as Vice Chairman. Senator Mullin also joined the Committee.