Campaign for House Committee on Indian Affairs gets under way

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WASHINGTON – The National Congress of American Indians has named the establishment of a standing Committee on Indian Affairs in the House of Representatives as the top priority of Indian country in the upcoming 110th Congress.

In a Nov. 8 letter to incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., NCAI President Joe Garcia identified the tribes’ primary problem with the House Committee on Resources, currently the committee of jurisdiction on most Indian-specific proposals taken up in the House. “Far too often tribal concerns are pitted against the concerns of members who are trying to move non-Indian related legislation out of the House Resources Committee,” Garcia wrote. “Time and time again, Indian legislation has been sacrificed for individual parochial interests on non-Indian issues.”

Larry Rosenthal, a lobbyist on the issue for Ietan Consulting Group, said the reason for the proposed new committee is that Indian-specific bills and proposals should be “judged on the merits.”

In only the past year, variations on the phrase “I’d like to help you but I’ve got an issue in my state” have been heard often enough by Indian-issue advocates to raise complaints outside the committee. One of these advocates, speaking anonymously so as not to be perceived as predicting the will of Congress, said chances of achieving a House Committee on Indian Affairs are decent, but added that the creation of a new standing committee will not be taken lightly in the House. A standing committee can only be established by a vote of the full House. (A standing committee is a permanent committee, as opposed to a temporary select committee.)

In the House, the speaker’s office refers legislation to committees by subject matter, meaning a handful of committees may have some jurisdiction over Indian issues. (The Resources Committee is assigned those Indian issues that have to do with the Interior Department, which is to say most of them but not all.) These committees would have to yield jurisdiction on Indian issues to a standing committee.

In the alternative, the House could create a subcommittee on Indian affairs. But leading proponents of a standing committee, including Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, would consider that a step down from the present committee structure. From a subcommittee, Indian issues would have to get the attention of the full committee. Under current rules of the Resources Committee, Indian issues are already addressed at the full committee level.

From the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and its commerce clause until 1946, Congress maintained Indian-specific committees of one description or another. But in 1946, at the outset of two decades universally known among tribes as the “termination era,” Congress collapsed the historical Indian committees into multi-issue, resource-related larger committees. The Senate revived its Indian committee as a select committee in the 1970s and made it a full standing committee in 1984.

The House has never revived the full Indian Affairs committee extinguished in 1946. In the 1970s and again in the 1990s, the House named subcommittees on Indian Affairs, but eventually located jurisdiction in, first, the Interior Committee, and then at the full committee level of House Resources.