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Presence in lobbying

Anaylysis - Part two

WASHINGTON – In times past, the Native lobbying presence in Washington was limited to occasional visits by great leaders whose names now belong to history. Red Cloud and a thousand others made the arduous train journey to Washington with the future of their people on the line.

These leaders were more diplomats than lobbyists, but they engaged in work that we now associate with lobbying – they tried to change and influence laws and regulations in favor of the people they represented. A century and more later, their overall success in securing tribal political survival against long odds has earned a high place among American history’s most impressive recorded achievements.

Even so, tribes suffered heavy political setbacks in those days, in large part because once their leaders left town, they had to rely on good faith in the absence of active monitoring, on after-the-fact reports in the absence of timely communications and on public sympathy in the absence of representation within the political system.

A lot has changed. Internet technology makes it possible for most Native communities to monitor policy formation almost as it transpires on Capitol Hill. Timely news on Native affairs in Washington can be had, at the press of some few buttons, in a quality and volume not to be hoped for only a decade or so ago. As for the Native lobbying presence in Washington today, it is permanent and active.

Again, just as the leaders of the past were more diplomats than lobbyists, so the permanent Native presence in Washington today is more a matter of advocacy organizations than of registered lobbyists. But most of these advocacy organizations do some of the essential work of lobbying – above all, they try to change or influence laws and regulations, not on behalf of paying clients as in the case of lobbyists, but on behalf of their member organizations.

Indian Country Today’s sources on Capitol Hill, speaking as always on strict condition of anonymity, provided their views on some of Indian country’s leading advocacy organizations.

* The National Indian Gaming Association may be the best of them all, as empowered by the organized force of gaming tribes and the able representation in Washington of Mark Van Norman and Ernie Stevens Jr. If, as appears possible, the Indian gaming industry emerges unscathed from the current 109th Congress – the one inspired by the Abramoff lobbying scandal to explore a host of regulatory impediments to business as usual for Indian casinos – it will be in part because of NIGA’s ability to play defense against the various strangleholds devised in Congress.

If there’s a criticism to be leveled at NIGA and its members, it’s that they primarily play defense while rarely initiating realistic legislative proposals of their own.

In addition, ICT’s Capitol Hill sources believe that as the unofficial “money bag” of Indian country, NIGA would redouble its strength if it were to align itself in some way with other monied factions outside of Indian country – chambers of commerce or other business groups, for instance. More of such a standard trade association model would help it get off the defensive on Capitol Hill – as NIGA found ways to assist the other groups with their interests, the other groups would find ways to assist NIGA.

Finally, ICT’s Capitol Hill sources identify a problem common to many Washington-based, Indian-specific organizations: NIGA’s strong attachment to Democrats not only writes off Republican votes that would be up for grabs if the proper approach were made, but puts Republican allies in a bad position.

Of course, like each of the organizations under discussion here, NIGA’s priorities depend on its member tribes. For that matter, there is always plenty of defense to be played on Indian affairs in Washington.

* The National Congress of American Indians is a demonstrable powerhouse in Washington. Time and again, the organization has derailed ill-considered initiatives in Congress by calling on its membership for precise testimony on the details of policy as they play out for tribes, or by clarifying the fine points of tribal distinctions under federal law. NCAI’s performance on a steady succession of important issues has been impressive.

But NCAI too has overemphasized the Democratic allegiance of its member tribes in the past, though Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson said that is changing. Nonetheless, ICT’s Capitol Hill sources believe the next level of effectiveness for NCAI is to reach more Republicans, especially the kind of influential committee chairmen and senior staff members who can move legislation.

Another of NCAI’s problems is endemic to large membership organizations: an occasional lack of focus when it is most required on controversial issues. But this is unlikely to change, given NCAI’s large roster of member tribes of all sizes and the many complex issues it must navigate, all with as little offense as possible to any of them.

* United South and Eastern Tribes is the organizational opposite of NCAI – its membership is a small number of casino tribes, all of them east of the Mississippi River and most of them committed to issues of cultural revival, economic development, governmental sovereignty and self-determination. These characteristics permit USET to focus as one on a limited range of issues. Within that range, they have an exceptional effectiveness to show for their unity of purpose. That effectiveness in turn has gained USET a credibility on Capitol Hill that is helpful as it weighs in on broader issues. But USET generally doesn’t engage on issues that don’t appeal to all of its members.

Unlike most of the other organizations under discussion here, USET does not maintain a Washington office. But its officers and board members give it a regular presence on Capitol Hill.

* In the same neighborhood as USET, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians brings focus to the issues of its membership, along with good leadership and ideas. Despite lacking a Washington office, ATNI is a factor in Washington due to the regular presence there of its active board members and officers.

* The National Indian Education Association has been around for years, but only recently has it begun to make strides as a Washington presence. Its progress has been dramatic, but mostly below the radar screen as it builds momentum on its issues that may pay off in a future Congress.

Wrapping up their account of Indian-specific lobbying in Washington, ICT’s Capitol Hill sources identified a last group of lobbyists that are among the best. But because they’re associated with single tribes, they are seldom singled out among multi-client lobbying shops. Markham Erickson of McGuiness & Holch in Washington is associated with the Oneida Indian Nation of New York; John Gouvremont and Daniel Little staff the Washington office of the Mashantucket Pequot; and PodestaMattoon, with Dan Mattoon well-connected among Republicans and Tony Podesta among Democrats, a solid lineup of staff and trust all around, has been effective for its only tribal client of recent years, the Chickasaw Nation.