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Rep. Daines Talks Cobell and the Need for GOP to Connect With Tribes

In an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Rep. Steve Daines discusses the need for the GOP to better connect with tribes.

Republican Rep. Steve Daines is feeling confident that he can pull off a win against incumbent Democratic Sen. John Walsh in this fall’s closely watched Montana Senate race.

But Daines says he will need the help of his state’s Indian constituents to do it, which is why doing plenty of visits with tribal leaders, making his positions on Indian issues clear, and advocating from within the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs for improved components of the Cobell settlement and economic progress for reservations.

Daines readily admits that Republicans don’t always do the best jobs at reaching out to tribes, and he wants to change that, modelling good behavior for his peers. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, he explains his current Indian-centric economic focus, delves into his state’s recent Indian voting controversies, and he explains his Cobell land buy-back legislation.

You recently introduced legislation focused on improving the $1.9 billion land buy-back component of the Cobell settlement that the Interior Department is overseeing. Why is your legislation needed?

We’ve received a lot of feedback on this as I have visited with tribes across Montana. They weren’t happy with the process. They weren’t happy with the uncertainty of the process. And they also didn’t like the fact that it expires in 10 years; there is concern that the settlements won’t all be completed by the expiration date. And at the end of 10 years these dollars revert back to the federal government. So the bill I have first provides more certainty for tribes to contract with the Department of the Interior for implementation of the program, and second, it allows more time for implementation. It also extends [the deadline] to 15 years—we’ve already used up two years since the settlement without much action. Third, it allows the tribes to enter into compacts with Interior. The feedback I’m getting from the tribes is that they really like this bill. In fact, they like this bill better than the bill that Sen. Walsh submitted on this matter.

Now, you released your legislation on this issue and then very soon after that, Interior announced several more land buy-back deals with tribes, specifically with tribes in Montana. Coincidence?

I don’t know for certain, but I do know that we will continue to apply pressure and to be a voice for the tribes in this process. I’m sure that doesn’t hurt.

It’s great for the tribes that have been able to benefit, but do you worry that the administration is reacting to political pressure from both sides of the aisle in ways that could shortchange the process of carrying out a fair plan for all tribes?

I wake up every day working hard for the people of Montana. And I work hard on behalf of our tribes. Montanans expect us to forget about whether we’re Republicans or Democrats and to remember that we’re Montanans. As the Montana delegation, we need to fight for the people who we represent back home. It’s good to have a united delegation, so we can be the voice for our tribes in Washington.

Sen. Walsh and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s(D-Oregon) land buy-back bills differ from yours in that they make the buy-backs subject to contracting and compacting by amending the Claims Resolution Act, not the Indian Land Consolidation Act, as yours does. Why is that distinction important?

We want to provide more certainty for the tribes. We don’t want all this discretion to be left to Interior, creating uncertainty and confusion for the tribes. It also differs in that my bill adds the additional time—increasing it from 10 years to 15 years for implementation.

That 15-year idea seems pretty commonsense. Do you sense that Walsh and DeFazio would be against it?

I don’t know. I do hope that we can come to agreement on it. I think the concern the tribes have is asking what incentive the federal government has to move quickly in this process, because, in fact, at the end of 10 years the money reverts back to the Treasury. I think they’re concerned that there is little reason for the federal government to move quickly and efficiently through this process, and that’s why we want to extend it by 5 years.

Any concern that adding 5 years gives the government more time to dawdle?

Always a concern, but this provision is not the only provision of this bill. The added certainty for the tribes allows for more predictability in the outcome.

Sen. Walsh’s bill calls for the money in the program to be placed by Interior in an interest-bearing account while it is waiting to be spent. Your bill allows that, too, using the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act?

Correct, the interest is a given.

Is your bill written in a way to avoid scoring by the Congressional Budget Office?

Yes, we don’t think it will score, which gives us a higher probability of moving it forward, getting it done. Our team that we have in our office has been ranked by GovTrack as number one in effectiveness in my first year back here as a freshman Congress member. That’s a credit not to me, but to my staff. Effectiveness is measured by getting bills through committee. Not just putting a bill out there, and issuing a press release, as most offices do—we’re talking about actually getting something done.

Have you gotten commitment from Chairmen Don Young (R-Alaska) and Doc Hastings (R-Washington) to move this bill forward?

We’re pretty optimistic. I can’t say that I have a commitment yet. But we’re getting the right signals back from the committee right now. Our team knows that if you want to get a bill ahead in committee, work with the committee staff ahead of time. We’ve done that.

Beyond this bill, what’s your relationship like with tribes?

I remember the first time that I met Chairman Old Coyote of the Crow Tribe. His cousin, Rachel, and I went to grade school together. Their family lived about four doors down from where I grew up in Bozeman. Her dad was one of the codetalkers from World War II. Two weeks ago, I was invited to be in the Crow parade as guest of honor, riding next to Chairman Old Coyote on horseback in the parade. That was a real honor. Beyond growing that relationship with Chairman Old Coyote, I have been spending time with many tribal leaders. They want to be heard. I have spent time listening to their concerns.

We are fighting for the concerns of Indian country, a lot of which focuses on economic development. Crow has a 50 percent unemployment rate. Chairman Old Coyote told me his first three priorities are jobs, jobs, jobs.

I’m also aware that, unfortunately, Republicans have not always been known to be actively working with our tribes. I think we need to put that behind us. We need to go out and work on behalf of all Montanans and all tribes.

Democrats tend to do better at getting Indian votes, but Republicans have done some strong things for tribes, like advancing self-determination, supporting bipartisan pro-tribal legislation, and the two members of Congress who are Native American right now are Republicans. Why is the outreach from Republicans not happening as well as you would like?

I can’t speak on behalf of other Republicans, but I want to be an example and a model for them on the Hill to show them the importance of actions speaking louder than words. My actions are spending time with the tribes, but then, importantly, coming back to Washington and getting things done on behalf of tribes.

Both you and Sen. Walsh have told me now how important it is for actions to speak louder than words when you work on behalf of tribes. Both of you are implying that you will take more action for tribes than the other candidate. How can you promise that you will really do more than Sen. Walsh?

Well, I think it comes down to actually getting bills moved through committee. I spent 28 years in business, and I look at results. We need to get results for these tribes. We’re starting to make some progress with the Crow Tribe, working on their natural resource issues. They want to continue to develop their natural resources. Philosophically, I believe in standing up for the rights of the states and standing up for the rights of the sovereign tribes. I see those as parallel philosophies. I fight on behalf of the state of Montana every day, but I also fight on behalf of the sovereignty of Indian country and tribal nations.

Going back to Chairman Old Coyote mentioning how important jobs are to his reservation and across Indian country—has the administration done enough to improve tribal economic development?

The jobs in the Crow case involve coal, and Chairman Old Coyote told me that the war on coal from the EPA and the Obama administration is a war on the Crow people of Montana. I’m in Washington fighting that battle on behalf of the Crow Tribe that wants to develop its resources. The Obama administration is creating barriers to economic development in the natural resource area.

The administration needs to understand that tribes are very responsible stewards of the environment. They love their lands, and they want to have a balance, so they can keep their people on their lands with jobs, as well as protect the environment.

The president formed a Native affairs council made up of agency heads last year. Some tribal leaders have been optimistic for him to appoint a tribal economic council made up of tribal citizens. Do you think that’s a good idea?

I do. Jobs need to be a focus for the administration. The best way is to make sure that the voices of the tribes are heard in the highest levels of our government.

Democrats have faced an interesting lawsuit in Montana over a lack of satellite voting offices on reservations.

That issue did recently get resolved by our Secretary of State to make sure the voice of Indian country is heard. What I tell the tribes is that it’s my job to represent them in Washington. Whether they vote for me or not, I’ll be voting for them back in Washington.

The Secretary of State’s decisionallows three satellite voting locations on Montana reservations this fall. Do you support how that worked out?

Yes. That’s something that our Secretary of State oversees, and I’m one who always steps up and respects the will of the states. I don’t think the federal government should be interfering with what the states need to do. So I stand behind the state of Montana.

Were you surprised at all that the Secretary of State was slow to embrace more Indian voting offices? If Indians tend to vote more for Democrats, why wouldn’t the Democratic leadership have been pushing all along for more polling stations?

I’m not sure. (laughs) I’m not sure.

In terms of your own get-out-the-vote activities in Indian country, what will that look like?

A member of my official staff, Amanda Peterman, is a member of the Crow Tribe. She stays focused on serving the tribes across Montana. Our focus will be doing the right thing for Indian country, and I’ve always believed that if you keep doing the right thing, good things come from that.

Sen. Walsh has hammered your support for sequestration, noting that it hurt tribal budgets, yet you supported it. What do you think?

I think the blame game is not going to bring us toward a productive solution in addressing the issues in Indian country. I’m staying focused on tribal economic growth and development and on making sure tribal voices are heard in Washington.

Tribal leaders agree that the federal government has trust and treaty obligations to tribes that were upended by sequestration—both Republicans and Democrats did not allow a carve-out for tribes despite their unique political status. Did you think about that issue at all when you supported sequestration?

I think any time we look at federal policy as it relates to Indian country, we have to come back to a foundational principle of sovereignty. That’s something that many who don’t represent Indian country don’t understand. It always needs to be a principle that we look at here as we look at federal policy.

You do not support the Affordable Care Act, yet it includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Sen. Walsh says you want to repeal the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Is that true?

What I want to do is ultimately improve the outcomes in healthcare in Indian country. I have had some great conversations with the tribes about looking at the inefficiencies, the wasted money in the bureaucracies of the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I don’t think I’ve found a single tribe that is happy with the bureaucracy and the inefficiency that goes on. The money needs to go to the people who need the help. We need to reform. It’s like we’re seeing with the Veterans’ Affairs system. There are some parallels.

Does the Indian Health Care Improvement Act have the teeth to reform the Indian Health Service?

No, it does not. We need to shake up the Indian Health Service and improve the efficiency of it.

Lastly, are you going to win?

(laughs) That’s up to the people of Montana. We’re feeling good about the race. The polling data looks to be strong. But I’m staying focused truly on doing my job well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.