Congress' lesson learned in 2007: Get out the vote


WASHINGTON - Like every political party that has been in the minority for any length of time, Democrats entered 2007 with great plans for their new slender majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But like Republicans after their revolutionary gains in 1994, they found that they couldn't enact anywhere near the agenda of new law they had hoped to, and that trying hadn't necessarily endeared them with the public.

At year's end, commentators nationwide had drawn attention to a parallel in paralysis between the class of 1994, which ended up shutting down the government over uncompromising positions on the federal budget, and the current class of 2006, which has gone beyond impasse over the war in Iraq following President George W. Bush's successful veto of a national budget sent up by Congress.

Many possibilities thronged about the thinking in Washington as to how it could all play out. But for Indian country, the home truth was that if a federal budget cannot be enacted, significant funding increases authorized by Congress for a handful of programs, including Indian Head Start and Native languages, will not be appropriated.

For some veteran lobbyists and Indian-issue monitors in and around Washington, the lesson of 2007 has been that the federal system is so biased toward gradual change, as intended by the framers of the Constitution, that the only sure answer for Indian country, with its overwhelmingly Democratic political affiliation, is to get out the vote, especially in eight key states where an Indian voting block can swing the election. Two Democratic senators, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jon Tester of Montana, owe their seats to the Indian vote in a Senate that happens to be majority Democrat by two votes, 51 - 49.

With their reaction to GOP losses in 2006, Republicans may have gotten a start, in 2007, on conceding the Indian vote in 2008. A faction of Republicans, especially active in the House Republican Study Committee, has concluded that the poor Republican showing of 2006 was due to abandonment of Republican principles. Among the restorative measures they've settled on is a strict construction of the Constitution that interprets the all-important reference to ''Indian tribes'' in the Commerce Clause to exclude indigenous groups such as Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives and urban Indians. The interpretation has been discredited by constitutional scholars and the practical impact in Congress to date has been nuisance amendments. But the wholesale philosophical and legal effort to separate the definition of tribes from indigenous peoples has trumped any previous strategy for uniting tribes behind Democrats in what even the arch-conservative National Review magazine concedes will be a tough election year for Republicans.

One strategy Indian country isn't likely to try again soon is an end-run around established congressional committee structure. A campaign for a specifically Indian committee in the House got under way on the heels of the 2006 elections, but it fell hard and fast in the new year, once it turned out that Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, hadn't been consulted about the proposed division of jurisdiction over Indian affairs, with its consequent dilution of authority. A Rahall spokesman said he wouldn't make any changes without consulting tribes first, and the chairman has dedicated his committee to what a party with a slender majority often does best - oversight hearings, building a full record on the issues, Indian issues included, for the day a favorable legislative landscape may present itself.

Rahall's counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has been equally arduous about oversight hearings.

Should Democrats capitalize on Republican woes in the 2008 election cycle, the pace of legislation could prove less gradual than it has seemed in 2007.