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The 109th is a Congress of distraction for Indian country

Analysis – Part one

WASHINGTON – A lobbying scandal, Indian gaming reform, energy rights of way: considered separately, none qualify as a mere distraction. But taken altogether, this trio of troubles has made the 109th a Congress of distraction for Indian country.

Meanwhile, as those three non-issues have absorbed untold time and expense, a pair of more substantive items – legislation aimed at settling the marathon lawsuit over the Individual Indian Money trust, and reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act – appears to have stalled out on Capitol Hill. With the current 109th Congress finished except for a lame duck session in November, congressional leadership and the Bush administration will decide which bills to bring forward. Legislation on both the IIM lawsuit and the health care reauthorization is dauntingly complicated, difficult to wrap up in a matter of days even with all the stakeholders on board.

In all likelihood, then, the Interior Department and its infamous IIM management will remain the poster child for ineffectual federal services as the nation enters a period of growing appropriations for homeland security; and IIM accountholders, long denied an accounting or recompense, will have to continue biding their time. Similarly, Indian health is apt to remain a standout cost center as health budgets everywhere seek to reign in the spiraling expense of care; and Indian patients, diabetics in particular, will have to do without the updated care an improved IHCIA would codify.

How all that plays out for Indian country will depend in part on whether the majority party in Congress is Democrat or Republican. Republican support for Indian and Native issues is solid in some quarters but overall too patchy to rely on, witness three separate occasions in the current Congress where the absence of a single GOP ally has opened the door to hostile amendments. The leadership in a majority Democratic Congress would draw on broader backing for Indian affairs in its appointments to the “conference committees” that work out the final details of legislation. The broader support would be more likely to block the more hostile amendments.

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Likewise, Democrats would assume the committee chairmanships in a Democrat-controlled Congress, almost certainly leading to more attention for critical issues facing all of Indian country. Politicians of every stripe pay close attention to local issues, of course. With Democrats they tend to be urban issues, but there is no ideological bar to including rural and Indian issues. In fact, a variety of national reform initiatives that grew out of urban Democratic roots have embraced Indian country to great effect.

Unlike Democrats, Republicans on balance espouse a states-rights ideology that often collides with Native priorities. In the 109th Congress, it did so in the realms of gaming and energy rights of way. On both counts, reform seemed unnecessary and has proved a pricey distraction.

Also on both counts, the court is still out. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., did a great favor to tribes by wrestling Indian gaming reform into the committee he chairs in the House of Representatives. He was also good enough to bring it forward for a vote on the House floor under rules that ensured it wouldn’t be amended with prejudice. But his bill to prohibit tribes from crossing state lines in the quest for lucrative casino sites failed on the House floor for one reason – it would have forced tribes to sign memos of understanding on impact mitigation with county governments, Pombo’s nod to a powerful states’-rights groundswell in California.

The price of having wrestled Indian gaming reform away from other legislators into his Resources Committee is that Pombo must do something with the issue. An earnest reform effort that fails is not going to satisfy the Indian gaming foes who wanted to deal with it in less friendly committees of jurisdiction. As Pombo has publicly stated, they are sure to attempt anti-sovereignty “rider” amendments against Indian gaming in the lame duck session. And one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, has a problem with reservation shopping in his own Illinois district. The conventional wisdom is that when a speaker of the House has a problem in his home district, he’ll solve it one way or another. Hastert’s last chance in the current 109th Congress will be the lame duck session.

In the Senate, gaming reform went forward with less justification – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has long wanted to regulate Indian gaming more closely, and saw his chance when the encyclopedic crimes of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff distracted attention from racketeering in Congress to the political contributions of gaming tribes. But while no one disagrees with the view that Indian gaming should be well-regulated, McCain’s problem is that many in Congress believe it is already reasonably well-regulated by tribes and the National Indian Gaming Commission. McCain’s bill has languished in the Senate and isn’t likely to pass in any form, though there is of course no telling what Congress might do in the upcoming lame duck session.

(Continued in part two)