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A legislative review of the 110th Congress

WASHINGTON – Despite committee hearings and leadership pronunciations that give the impression of ongoing official activity, Congress adjourned Oct. 3 until after Election Day, Nov. 4. During the week of Nov. 17, as now planned, survivors and some of the defeated members will reconvene for a “lame duck session” of Congress, working on the federal budget for fiscal year 2009, as well as energy and other bills – or, for that matter, any priority of powerful interests that want their agenda set up for next year if there’s no chance of enacting it this year. Lame duck sessions are known for unplanned developments.

Only then will the 110th Congress adjourn sine die, officially closing down without scheduling a day to meet again.

The Indian-specific enactments of the 110th Congress, amounting to barely more than a dozen items, may be deceptively modest. On that theme, among the most seemingly modest of them all was a simple resolution, signed into law Oct. 8. It declares the Friday after Thanksgiving a Native American Heritage Day, in 2008 only. But the bill’s primary backers, the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians, hope it will follow the example of Earth Day, a global institution. The great majority of Americans take the Friday after Thanksgiving as a holiday, and Native American Heritage Day is counted on as a reminder that they should make a place at the table for more than turkey and Pilgrims.

The principal committees of Indian jurisdiction in the chambers of Congress made place for a long procession of people at its witness tables. The Indian Affairs Committee of the Senate, chaired by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; and Natural Resources in the House of Representatives, chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., both kept to a relentless schedule of oversight hearings, new bill drafts and introductions, and reform legislation. In particular, Rahall got rolling on an attempt to codify the embattled consultation process between tribes and federal agencies; and Dorgan, drawing on a full slate of testimony before his committee, tackled a sweeping overhaul of the law-and-order systems in Indian country.

The conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill, confirmed on condition of anonymity by legislative staff and lobbyists, is that the committee efforts have built a solid legislative record that may enable the 111th Congress to “hit the ground running” on Native priorities in next year’s 111th Congress, especially if strong Democratic majorities materialize on Nov. 4. The lobbyist pointed out, that a GOP as soundly defeated as polls suggest would be to some extent in disarray, with policy differences playing out in their caucus, fewer resources as fundraising dries up, fewer votes to count on casting against the priorities of Indian country (the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization bill, is a case in point), and less energy for obstructionism generally. Its archconservative element, the Republican Study Committee in the House and the Steering Committee in the Senate, won’t drop their agenda and will still look to express it when opportunity arises in Indian bills, but may not have the votes to prevail, he added.

That would be good news for Native Hawaiians. The only stand-alone pan-Indian bill enacted in the 110th Congress was a reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act. But one price of its passage was the elimination of Native Hawaiian provisions at the insistence of the Republican Study Committee, said Paul Lumley, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.

The NAIHC Web site expresses thanks to the bill’s supporters in Congress, picturing Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., a longtime ally of Indian housing, along with Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John Barrasso of Wyoming; so Lumley’s critique by no means targeted Republicans across the board. But the Republican Study Committee consistently opposed Native Hawaiian provisions in House bills, Lumley said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., visited a more widespread defeat on Native communities through an amendment in the Senate barring abortion with federal funds, a non-issue and a redundancy for partisans of a bill to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. But despite strong argument against the Vitter amendment by Dorgan, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, a handful of Democrats joined Republicans in approving the amendment. Once the bill went over to the House, the amendment proved a “poison pill,” preventing a vote that would be cast as pro- or anti-abortion in an election year, with every House member facing voters Nov. 4.

But Congress also offered a silver lining by way of a $2 billion funding measure for Indian health care, law enforcement and water projects. GOP Sens. Jon Kyle of Arizona and John Thune of South Dakota, not without a signoff from the White House and a principled, cooperative reaction from Dorgan, found the funding in a presidential initiative against global infectious disease.

Tribe-specific laws of the 110th Congress concerned land leasing, conveyance or boundary issues of the Coquille, Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw, Siletz and Grand Ronde in Oregon; the Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut; the Saginaw Chippewa in Michigan; the Jicarilla Apache in New Mexico; and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño in California.

Congress enacted water settlements for the White Mountain Apache in Arizona and the Soboba Band of Luiseño
in California.

Various appropriations bills, including a continuing resolution on the budget and the so-called financial “bailout” bill (officially the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008), will provide funding to Indian agencies of the federal government, such as the IHS and the Interior Department, and to Indian-inclusive federal programs and departments such as Homeland Security, the Veterans Administration, and child Foster Care and Adoption Assistance under the Social Security Act; a 20 percent tax credit through 2009 on the first $20,000 of wages and employee health insurance paid by businesses to individuals who live on or near reservations; again through 2009, for on-reservation businesses, accelerated depreciation schedules for property that is primarily used to conduct business on the reservation; and numerous energy development incentives.

The Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 directs the secretary of the Drug Enforcement Administration to notify the U.S. attorney general of online pharmacy services provided by a tribe or tribal organization, as well as authorizing the secretary to designate IHS employees or contractors, or tribal or tribal organizational employees under a self-determination contract or compact with the IHS, as Internet-eligible controlled substance providers.

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