WASHINGTON - Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, a third generation Italian who has been elected to the House of Representatives from New Jersey's 6th District since 1988, has a track record of siding with the underdog - but that is not what brought him to Indian country.
The issues did that. His particular issues in representing New Jersey have always been universality of health care and the environment. Rutgers University, a major resource on the issues of pharmaceuticals and health care, is in his district; and the closure of New Jersey beaches over environmental issues has taken a heavy toll on the state's economy in times past.
In 1994, when former Rep. Newt Gingrich led Republicans to majority power in the House, a merger of committees in the ensuing reorganization placed Native issues within Pallone's bailiwick - "So I had to get up on it."
From there he has established a regular presence in Indian affairs, always staying close to his core issues of health and the environment, but often being heard on other matters too. Recently on a House subcommittee, for instance, he shared time on a point of order offered by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., asking that a measure to force settlement of the Cobell litigation over trust funds be deleted from the Interior appropriations bill.
The supporting role served to demonstrate bipartisan solidarity on a point of order that could have been denied - a modest enough moment in the grand scheme of things no doubt, but not to be underestimated in terms of congressional process.
In health care on the other hand, Pallone has assumed a more prominent role.
Case in point: at a joint hearing of House and Senate committees on Indian health care reauthorization July 16, Pallone led the Democratic questioning of then-acting (since confirmed) Secretary of the Indian Health Service, Dr. Charles Grim.
"I just don't get the sense of crisis from your testimony," Pallone said, adding that tribes are being asked to shoulder the burden for health care more than before. "You're almost building into IHS the notion that tribes will pay for their own services. ? Is there an assumption that tribes will pay?"
Pallone believes so, and he provided further thoughts on that and other subjects in an interview between votes July 18. The setting was the Raeburn Room, just off the House floor in the Capitol building.
Both questions and answers as rendered below include slight paraphrases.
ICT: Congressman Pallone, why is it so important to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, as contemplated in both chambers, the Senate and the House, through S. 556 and H.R. 2440?
Pallone: Unauthorized programs can't keep up with the changes in health care. ? There's too much emphasis now in the IHS on caring for diabetes down the line [after it has been contracted, when it is four times more expensive to treat than other diseases]. The emphasis should be on health promotion and disease prevention, and that's the emphasis they're trying to make ? but pressing needs are difficult to fulfill without reauthorization.
The reauthorization bill has been put together by a Native steering committee and health care professionals. It includes major components for facilities development, urban Indians, diabetes and alcoholism.
ICT: Does the consolidation of the Indian Health Service currently underway make sense from a health care perspective.
Pallone: No. It may result in less attention paid to Indian affairs ? I don't like it at all. ? My greatest fear is that those who are in the back of dealing with this issue in the Congress, either at the agency or administration levels ? more and more there's this notion that tribes will pay ? more and more there's this withering of the federal obligation. There's no question that's what's going on, whether they admit it or not.
ICT: What is your sense of the state of Indian affairs in the current political climate?
Pallone: I see a huge difference between the executive branch and the Congress and that's because ? they're not elected in the executive branch. These agencies are in a mode that doesn't take account of Indian wishes. President Bush inherited the attitude but he isn't changing it.
Tribes are more active in Congress. Their attitude is that 'If you don't realize it, we're going to tell you.' Tribal activism is translating itself at the political level, and these agencies are not responding to that.