Analysis: Congress throws down gauntlet in Cobell

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congress has thrown down the gauntlet in the Cobell trust funds reform lawsuit, urging the litigants to settle the case promptly and warning that Congress will legislate a mediated settlement otherwise.

The letter from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, signed by co-chairmen Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, was sent the week of April 7 to plaintiff attorneys John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Dennis Gingold, and to Interior Secretary Norton as named defendant and her lead attorney.

It rehearsed the troubled 20-year history of trust funds reform efforts and sent the most blunt signal yet that those efforts must have an end, at least as concerns the Individual Indian Monies accounts that are at stake in the Cobell case. It also mentioned the toll trust funds reform is taking on the national treasury, echoing the tempest of discontent the issue has stirred up in Congress within the past month.

At a House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing in March, the Interior Department request for a budget increase of one-third of a billion dollars to underwrite trust funds reform made headlines, as congressmen questioned the effectiveness of their expenditures so far. That skepticism led to the forced disclosure of Interior findings financed by a previous round of congressional funding. The disclosure that Interior spent $20 million discovering that only four IIM accounts were only $61 off - this based on documents whose accuracy the auditor couldn't vouch for - brought forth a chorus of public discredit led by House Native American Caucus co-chair J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.

Additionally, in a recent Indian Country Today interview (Vol. 22, Issue 41), Campbell forecast that Congress would intervene in the case if the litigants could not show progress shortly in settling it between themselves. On the same occasion, the senator noted that the two sides are so far apart they'd have a hard time sitting down to negotiations.

In retrospect, it appears that Campbell was making the case for Senate intervention. And if that is so, one may also assume that Campbell and Inouye have the votes to pass a mediation measure, at least in committee and possibly on the full Senate floor. This is the place to mention that the Senate's only Indian delegate, a Republican, has better access than most to the Senate's powerful Republican leadership - and in fact to President Bush himself, as indicated in a sidebar expression of thanks to Campbell from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, during an April 2 committee hearing.

Against this background, the Campbell-Inouye letter to parties litigant in Cobell would seem to have some gravitas going for it.

Attorneys Echohawk and Harper, and director of communications for Indian affairs Dan Dubray at Interior, could not be reached for comment.