Further efforts are expected
WASHINGTON - First-term Democratic Rep. Michael Arcuri of New York's 24th District tried to stymie the long-established BIA land-into-trust approval process by amending a larger bill with a so-called ''rider,'' seeking to forbid federal expenditures on the transfer of land owned by the Oneida Indian Nation of New York into trust status.
He submitted the amendment to the House Rules Committee on April 7 and withdrew it April 8 under withering criticism.
The BIA has recommended conferring federal trust status on 13,089 acres, purchased by the OIN on the open market and within its ancestral territories. A final decision rests with the BIA's parent Interior Department. In trust, the land would be subject to Oneida territorial sovereignty, a move vociferously resisted by a segment of local opinion. (The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)
Arcuri's amendment would have cut funding for the transfer to trust status under a larger land management bill, H.R. 2016 in the House of Representatives. But his amendment, 26 by number, was not germane to the larger bill, meaning he had to submit it to the House Committee on Rules before it could be considered on the House floor.
A Rules Committee meeting had been scheduled for the evening of April 8. Word got around Washington that morning; and by mid-afternoon, the OIN, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, and others had weighed in against the rider. Arcuri withdrew it, explaining for the Utica (N.Y.) Observer-Dispatch that he had hoped to buy time for negotiations between Oneida and local municipal officials, but determined the amendment ''wasn't fitting to the bill.''
In e-mailed responses to ICT, Arcuri said the only purpose of the amendment was to buy time for negotiation.
''This amendment was offered to provide all parties with a necessary time-out to come back to the bargaining table in good faith ... I am committed to achieving a negotiated settlement that is just for all parties.''
On Capitol Hill April 9, Republican and Democratic staff alike speculated, on condition of anonymity, that Arcuri had a sense of mission about the issue and would try to find another bill, or legislative ''vehicle'' in Washington political parlance, for the same amendment. Arcuri said he will continue to work at the federal and local levels to achieve a settlement that is comprehensive and just to all parties.
He added that the amendment would not affect jobs at the Oneidas' Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y. ''Turning Stone is a key component of the central New York economy, and I will do everything in my power to protect those jobs.''
The OIN responded vigorously. ''This amendment violates every principle of due process and fairness to the Oneida people,'' Nation Representative Ray Halbritter wrote to the Rules Committee.
In closing, he added, ''The Oneida Nation asks that the Committee continue to allow the [Interior] Department to pursue our trust land application process in due course. We ask that you reject Mr. Arcuri's effort to use his position to sneak through legislation that subverts the federal trust land process and undermines the ability of our Nation to preserve its culture and build its future.''
After decades in the delicate and demanding land-into-trust process, spokesman Mark Emery wrote in the Utica newspaper, ''The Nation is near the end of the trust process set up by Congress, yet he [Arcuri] does not like the outcome so he now wants to change the rules that everyone followed.''
Emery characterized the amendment, offered as a rider without benefit of public hearing or congressional debate, as a sneak attack ''at the last possible moment, under cover of darkness.''
Rules Committee meetings that must approve non-germane amendments for consideration on the House floor often take place the evening before floor proceedings, Cole said, giving rise to the term ''midnight riders'' to describe amendments that emerge without warning from the Rules Committee.
The Oklahoma Republican, a Chickasaw citizen, is the only tribally enrolled congressional member. A former member of the House Rules Committee, he sent it a strongly worded letter of opposition to the Arcuri amendment.
''This amendment is entirely non-germane to H.R. 2016 and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the proper procedures for taking land into trust - procedures that were established by Congress over seventy years ago,'' Cole wrote.
Elsewhere, addressing Rules Committee Chair Louise McIntosh Slaughter, D-N.Y., he added: ''Madam Chairwoman, Mr. Arcuri's proposal also would circumvent established administrative procedures and the authority of the BIA. This decision was not frivolous, or made in haste. The final Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] issued by the BIA was more than 6,000 pages long and they consulted extensively with the local community. Congress has ... no right to ruin the lives and economic solvency of an entire Indian Nation. Madam Chairwoman, it is absolutely outrageous that we would consider it prudent to tear down the separation of powers that is so vital to our government by usurping the jurisdiction of the BIA on this matter.
''Further, Madam Chairwoman, it is entirely inappropriate for Congress to tie the hands of the BIA without consideration by our own committee process. I am a member of the Natural Resources Committee, and I find it only appropriate that the committee be consulted on issues regarding Native Americans. This body has established rules regarding committees of jurisdiction and this amendment would not only violate our own rules but it would be wholly irresponsible to create policy without properly vetting the legislation through the committee process.''
In an interview afterward, Cole said of the letter, ''You're looking at the toned-down version.'' He and his staff got fired up about the Arcuri amendment, he said.
''I think it was a very ill-advised move that had all kinds of problems with it ... undercutting the Oneida, a great tribe, and setting a bad precedent for every single tribe.'' The amendment ''was not above-board,'' Cole said.
Had Arcuri proceeded, he said the ranking Republican on the Rules Committee, Rep. David Dreier of California, would have advocated against it. ''And our next step after that was going to be the Native American Caucus.''
But he also considered the episode a healthy reminder of the Rules Committee's power in the House. A great deal can be accomplished there, Cole said, for better or worse as the case may be. In his time on the Rules Committee, he managed to move an amendment memorializing the U.S.S. Oklahoma battleship, sunk at Pearl Harbor.
But generally it's not the place for more complex legislation, he added. ''You just can't legislate that way. It's not fair to tribes and it's bad process.''