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Presence in lobbying

Analysis - Part one

WASHINGTON – Politically speaking, everything looks a little different in Washington depending on whether Republicans or Democrats are the majority party in Congress.

Republicans have been the majority party in Congress for 12 years now. Democrats will have a chance to change that in the November elections, and some leading indicators suggest their chances are getting better. But a sweep of that magnitude still has to be considered unlikely until it actually happens.

Since Indian country began to participate in modern two-party politics, its political sympathies have been overwhelmingly Democratic. Notwithstanding many exceptions, that hasn’t changed over the past 12 years. One result is that Indian-issue lobbyists do not have a pervasive presence in Republican circles on Capitol Hill.

To get a glimpse of why Indian Country Today’s Capitol Hill sources on the lobbying profession consider that problematic, simply flip the political history of the past 50 years. Pretend that Republicans were the majority party in Congress for most of those years, and that Democrats recently regained majority control. The stampede of Indian-issue lobbyists paying court to Democratic lawmakers would have been immediate and lasting.

But in actual historical fact, the Native courtship of Republicans, once the GOP took majority control of Congress for the first time in 40 years in 1994, has been more like a reluctant trickle. Generally speaking, Republicans have noticed. Voters can cast their ballots as they see fit, but a lobbyist has to be able to make an effective case with members of both parties.

Now even the trickle has been interrupted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. One of the potentially lasting disasters of that debacle is that it resulted directly from efforts in Indian country to win understanding for its issues in Republican circles. That may or may not taint Republicans everlastingly for the current generation of Native people.

But in any case, the fact still remains that the GOP Congress includes many approachable Republicans (both congressional members and staff) who have little or no knowledge of Natives, have not fixed bayonets against them and have no taste whatsoever for Abramoff’s style of lobbying – this at least according to ICT’s Capitol Hill sources on lobbying (doubtless now is the time to note, not for the first time in this series on the subject of lobbying, that ICT’s sources spoke for the record only on strict condition of anonymity).

Their concern is that the “reluctant trickle” may be catching up with tribes as pressures mount on the federal budget and Republican chances in the November elections. A few cases in point as they see it

* The Navajo Nation recently invited Louis Farrakhan to address the governing council. The shock value of the headline was pretty high on Capitol Hill and “K Street” (slang for the Washington-based lobbying profession, after a Washington corridor thick with lobbying shops and think tanks). Minister Farrakhan represents the Nation of Islam. It’s probably a safe bet that a majority of Republican voters see Farrakhan as radical in his views, black in a vaguely challenging way, Islamic, divisive and provocative to say the least on the subject of Israel (Farrakhan has made anti-Semitic statements in the past). The Navajo Nation is none of these things, and so the shock. But the shock showed every sign of dissipating.

Then the other shoe fell. A draft report on tribal rights of way went to the White House with a list of options for seizing tribal rights of way that would eclipse sovereignty over time if acted upon. Congress commissioned the report, in the last analysis, because the Navajo and a giant of the oil and gas industry could not reach agreement on rights of way payments; downstream of their disagreement, other tribes have felt compelled to defend themselves as net contributors to national energy security, rather than a risk to it because (so the oil industry propaganda goes) they might negotiate for higher energy-related rights of way payments than energy companies are accustomed to paying.

But now, as an important draft report heads for a White House often criticized for recasting research to suit its policy priorities – and only a few priorities have proved higher than energy resources to this administration – the Navajo are in the headlines for having hosted a speaker about as welcome among Republican voters as a homewrecker at the family reunion. Republican voters are the people Republicans look to, ultimately, for their policy bearings (at least in an election year).

“Sane” is not a word one would soon use to characterize thinking that can find a link between Farrakhan and any threat to national energy security. Neither was it sane some years ago, however, for a national Republican congressional candidate to win election in part by associating a strong-running challenger of Mediterranean stock with a terrorist threat because of his heavy brow line and deep-set eyes. So unless irrefutable proof exists that wink-and-nod policy-making is a thing of the past, perhaps someone might have suggested to the Navajo that maybe the timing was off here.

That someone could have been a lobbyist in Washington with a sense of Republican feeling on Farrakhan, except that Navajo leadership seems to think in terms that take no account of such feeling at key times. This, after 12 years of a GOP majority in Congress.

* Abortion is one of the most volatile issues in America, right up there with race, gun control and the right to die. So perhaps someone might have suggested at Pine Ridge that carving out a sovereign territory for legal abortions in a state that had banned them would provoke a vehement reaction among Republicans on Capitol Hill. That someone could have been a lobbyist in Washington with a sense of Republican feelings on abortion – “As the elected tribal leader, you sign my paycheck and I’ll do what you decide, but part of my job is to advise you on how things look from a Washington perspective. And from a Washington perspective, this looks like really, really bad decision-making.”

Except that a conversation like that wouldn’t take place if, on the one hand, tribal leadership doesn’t consult its lobbyists before driving Republican lawmakers to tear up table napkins; or if on the other, lobbyists hired by the tribe are so favorably inclined toward abortion themselves that client interest isn’t properly consulted. In either case, it comes after 12 years of a GOP majority in Congress.

* It is not in the book of good health on Capitol Hill to berate individual lawmakers, publicly and with feeling, for no net gain. Lawmakers sort of know they’re not sacred, as they know that at some point politics may be a contact sport. But in this country, 535 of them have been elected by voters. That makes many of them powerful, most of them influential, and all of them due the respect of their office. To a varying degree, these words apply for senior staff members on Capitol Hill as well. They do talk to each other and their bosses, by the way.

In bloodthirsty times, Machiavelli knew a terrible revenge must come of only injuring a prince – the imperative was to kill him or leave him be. In a more sedate society, a similar sentiment is found in the old saying that cleans up nicely for a family newspaper – don’t tick off a cardinal.

All of which seems obvious enough that it shouldn’t need a series on lobbying to say it plain. But when lobbyists hired by tribes start forgetting it with gusto, ICT’s Capitol Hill sources think it’s time to wonder aloud whether their frame of reference has gotten stuck not only pre-1994, but pre-1974, when the American Indian Movement was still on the move and a culture of iconoclasts hadn’t paused yet to wonder who would pick up the pieces of their fallen idols and dashed standards for Indian country. “Anyone but Republicans” seems to be their attitude. This, after 12 years of a GOP majority in Congress.

<i>(Continued in part two)