WASHINGTON – As Election Day approached and the outlook snowballed from bad to worse and beyond for the GOP, one television pundit got a round of laughter by asking something like: “Republicans have got to be asking what’s next, locusts?”
In the House of Representatives, the answer should have been something like, “No, worse – voters.” Voters descended on House GOP seats Nov. 7, stripping 28 from the pre-election majority. With eight districts in various recount phases and two headed for runoff elections, present vote totals would send 233 Democrats and 202 Republicans to the House for the 110th Congress. In the unlikely event every recount process and
runoff election went against them, Democrats could do no worse than 230 seats, well shy of the governing majority some party faithful hoped for but still double the minimum number they needed to achieve a straight majority.
As in the Senate, majority control confers on committee chairmen their manifold powers to shape, advance and cancel legislation; a greater allocation from the federal budget for staffing; and subpoena powers as oversight investigations go forward.
Indian country has never lacked friends among House Republicans, but it has found itself short of GOP champions on key votes, in part because leading committee members in recent congresses have been, at the end of the day, unreachable. The Democratic majority is good news for Indian country in this respect among others – though it will still be necessary to work with Republicans, reaching recalcitrant Republicans will no longer be essential on several key committees of the 110th Congress.
On the other hand, voters turned out a number of House Republicans who were genuine champions for Indian country nationwide. J.D. Hayworth in Arizona was one of these, as was Richard Pombo in California (notwithstanding his attempts to end “reservation shopping” for casino sites, many and probably most tribes have reason to remember Pombo for a principled resistance to congressional sneak attacks on tribal interests). Both of the incumbents lost on single issues, Hayworth for his hardline anti-immigration stance, Pombo for his pro-development environmental views. Hayworth chaired the Congressional Native American Caucus, Pombo the House Resources Committee.
But if Indian country lost a pair of champions in these two lawmakers, it stands to gain still more besides as the current House committee structure shapes up under the new Democratic majority. An initiative now under way would restore a full Native American Affairs Committee to the House (Republicans incorporated one such subcommittee into Resources, or disbanded it according to other interpretations, upon capturing a House majority in 1994). It’s unclear at this writing whether the initiative will succeed, much less who would chair the new committee.
Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia is in line to chair Resources, and he issued a Nov. 9 press release setting forth a “vision” for the committee under his leadership that included “protecting the disenfranchised in Indian country” and “advanc[ing] Native American health care.” But in Rahall’s case, it’s an open secret in Washington – actually it’s more of a background secret, since no one will say it for the record – that his undoubted sympathy hasn’t translated to a consistently burning commitment to Indian country. Rahall has been an ally of tribes on occasions and in ways that can’t be minimized; but a certain dispassion has made itself felt as well, as for instance when he voted with Pombo on the bill against “reservation shopping” that failed on the House floor in September. Rahall’s vote was the result of late-night deal-making that didn’t involve consultation with tribes.
Few expect that he’ll be less than a friend of Indian country, should Resources retain a large jurisdiction in Indian affairs throughout the 110th Congress with Rahall as its chair. But when champions are needed, the hope in some quarters of Indian country is that he’ll turn to other committee members such as senior statesman Dale Kildee of Michigan ... unless of course Kildee, as current chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and everyone’s favorite to chair a separate Native
American Affairs Committee, should do so if it transpires.
Other powerful committee chairmen will enter the 110th Congress with a solid track record on Native issues, and an assortment of Indian-specific issues sure to come before them. Among them: George Miller of California at Education and the Workforce; Charles Rangel of New York at Ways and Means; John Dingell of Michigan at Energy and Commerce; John Conyers of Michigan at Judiciary; Barney Frank of Massachusetts at Financial Services; James Oberstar of Minnesota at Transportation and Infrastructure; and at the all-important Appropriations Committee, David Obey of Wisconsin – no friend of tribal gaming across state lines but on many other issues, for much of a long career, a supportive presence in the Indian camp.
Things line up well enough for Native America in a Democratic-majority House that tribes, if so inclined, can afford to root for a Republican in the recount phase. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., has a slight lead over Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid. Wilson has sponsored important Native language legislation in the current 109th Congress. Teed up for it by a Republican leadership anxious to retain her post for the party, Wilson nonetheless showed a commitment to Native-language immersion schooling that bodes well for its place in any future Congress that includes her.
Also of more than passing interest to Indian country on the Republican side of the aisle, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Chickasaw citizen, has entered the lists against several other contenders for the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee, charged with increasing the number of GOP seats in the House.