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Baker-Shenk and Boylan: The impact of the 2010 election on Indian tribes

This is the second of two parts. Last week, the authors provided an overview of the House outcomes.

As the water recedes after the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republican Party has taken back control of the U.S. House in a tidal wave of historic proportions that ousted many long-time members of Congress [see Part I – Election impact in the U.S. House target="_blank"]. But the Democratic Party has retained control of the U.S. Senate and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., convincingly defeated his Tea Party challenger in a race in which he spent about $74 per voter and his opponent appeared to spend a record-breaking $87 per voter.

Overall, a record $4 billion was spent by candidates and political parties in this mid-term election, plus new levels of spending by outside political organizations on the right and left. Many political pundits consider this mid-term election to be the beginning of the 2012 election campaign in which control of the White House as well as the Senate and House will again be in play.

Republicans gained at least six additional seats in the Senate but the Democrats retained their majority. Democrats lost in North Dakota and Wisconsin. In Alaska, the Republican incumbent, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, appears to have retained her seat but the final results await write-in and absentee counts.

While recounts and challenges could extend the uncertainty into the coming weeks, it is clear that the Democratic Party will keep its majority and committee leadership posts. However, a Senate majority does not create as much control as it does in the House. Because a single senator can object, nearly all legislation that clears the Senate does so only by consensus. Now that the 2012 campaign season has begun, this dynamic is expected to result in very little being accomplished. And efforts to overturn vetoes by President Barack Obama will likely fall far short of the two-thirds vote required.

Leadership

The new 112th Senate is projected to be divided between 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans, so membership on the various committees will be shuffled a bit to accommodate fewer Democrats and more Republicans. Because Reid won re-election so decisively, anticipated challenges for leadership posts by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have not materialized.

Appropriations Committee

In the 111th Congress, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, has been chairman of this committee and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the ranking member. This leadership structure will likely not change. Both, and especially Inouye, are known for their longstanding advocacy for tribal sovereignty and Indian issues.

Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is expected to continue as chair and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., as ranking member. Feinstein has been an active foe of fee-to-trust land transfers for Indian tribes but has generally been supportive of funding for Indian programs.

Committee on Indian Affairs

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., did not seek re-election and his seat was won by Republican John Hoeven, former North Dakota governor. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is next in line to chair the committee, but she has indicated only passing interest in leading the committee or advocating for Indian issues.

Among those next in line are Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who reportedly is interested in assuming the chairmanship of the committee. Tester has been a solid advocate for Indian issues and has been critical of federal Indian program shortcomings. If Tester is unable to serve as chair because of other commitments, it is entirely possible that relative newcomers Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., or Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., both outspoken advocates of tribal sovereignty and Indian issues, could assume the chair. It is anticipated that Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a strong advocate of tribal sovereignty and Indian issues, will continue as vice chairman of the committee, with his able Republican committee staff, and that of outgoing Chairman Dorgan, providing welcome continuity during the transition from the 111th to 112th Congress.

The Republican wave in the 2010 elections was propelled by unprecedented numbers. But in our decades of tribal advocacy in partnership with Democrats and Republicans, both of us have seen enough to know that “what goes around comes around.” These cycles of shifting power are, like the years, coming faster and faster and feeling shorter and shorter. All the more reason for Indian country to nurture friendships on both sides of the aisle, no matter who is in power.

Philip Baker-Shenk is a partner in the Indian Law Practice Group of the law firm Holland & Knight LLP. Virginia Boylan is the principal in her lobbying firm, Boylan Associates. Both have worked for Indian tribes in the nation’s Capital since the late 1970s.