Proposed Revisions of Regulations Regarding Sioux Benefits

B-199418: Jan 30, 1981

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The Department of the Interior proposes to revise the policies and regulations of the Bureau of Indian Affairs which govern the payment of certain benefits to Sioux Indians as a result of a suit against the Department which challenged the constitutionality of the present regulations. The Department asked GAO to modify or withdraw a number of its decisions which are inconsistent with the proposed regulations. Inconsistencies arise in four areas: head of family status; double benefits prohibition; vesting rights; and timing of eligibility determinations. The benefits in question are articles of farming equipment and stock or the commuted cash value of such articles. Only Sioux Indians who are single persons over the age of 18 or heads of families are eligible. The applicant must have received an allotment of land to be eligible under two of the statutes. These regulations did not define the term head of a family. The Department has concluded that these regulations are unconstitutional in that they discriminate against women on the basis of sex. GAO concurred with the Department that changes in the regulations were necessary so that either a husband or wife could qualify as head of the family and overruled former decisions to the contrary. The Department held that the prohibition against the double benefits provision of the statutes which merged the rights of Sioux women with that of their husbands by virtue of their marital status discriminated against women. GAO concurred with that determination and overruled a prior decision insofar as it held that a formerly married Sioux woman's entitlement to Sioux benefits in her own right were exhausted when her then-husband received Sioux benefits as head of the family. The Department proposed regulations that would require all applications for benefits to be made and approved during the lifetime of the applicant. It requested GAO to withdraw or modify decisions to the contrary. GAO will defer to the Department's preferred interpretation of the statutory language and overruled GAO decisions concerning the vesting of Sioux benefits. The Department revised its general rule of determining eligibility as of the application date and requested GAO to withdraw or modify two decisions which were in conflict with this determination. The decisions were overruled to the extent that they conflicted with the proposed rule governing redetermination of eligibility.