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Unpopular congressmen attach themselves to good causes

WASHINGTON – The Republican Party initiative to win favor for its least re-electable members passed all bounds of moderation April 5, when Montana’s Sen. Conrad Burns took the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing room floor to hold forth against methamphetamine addiction in Indian country. Actually, Burns remained seated, and he didn’t so much hold forth as read from a prepared statement.

The crystal meth crisis is real enough on reservations, but its reputation has been fanned in recent months by a GOP agenda item – finding issues that those members most endangered in the upcoming November elections can look good on. As an anonymous congressional aide informed the Roll Call newspaper in early March, “items such as the meth provision [of the Patriot Act], which addresses a major issue in many states, will be of particular interest, since they play to constituent concerns much more directly than most high-profile political fights inside the [Washington] Beltway.”

Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., is heading up the Republican anti-meth campaign. Talent faces a tough re-election in Missouri, so Republican leadership teed him up for sponsorship of anti-meth provisions in the Patriot Act and then gave him a warm publicity bath in an exceptionally rare parliamentary stunt known as a “bill enrollment ceremony.”

Democrats do this sort of thing too, of course, and there will be no shortage of similarly inspired occasions given the high stakes in the November mid-term elections. With 33 seats to be contested in the Senate, majority control of the chamber will hinge on a handful of races. This certainty is influencing a great many of the decisions made in Congress nowadays. The advantage for Democrats is that they are not, on the whole, associated with former Republican fund-raising impresario and current penitent Jack Abramoff, the “toxic lobbyist.”

Burns is. So while it’s reasonable to present Talent as the Republican go-to guy on meth (Missouri seems to have more than its share of the meth crisis), it seems somewhat more problematic to present Burns with an Indian-specific platform for anti-meth posturing. Not that the senator isn’t against drug use and meth addiction in particular. The problem isn’t only that the Montana Republican is a no-show at SCIA meetings and a non-performer for the tribes in his state. The larger problem is Abramoff. Burns is the guy who turned his back on needier tribes the minute paymaster Abramoff decided his casino-wealthy client tribe, the Saginaw Chippewa, was more deserving of millions in school funding.

But now here he was, offering a very, very unconvincing anecdote about kids discussing meth in school hallways, and even working in the one about a lady he met in church.

Burns made his prepared statement to government agency heads and the media, and then left the room before he had to hear from Indian community leaders on the morning’s second witness panel. The high public cost of a leadership class that can’t be bothered to grasp social problems before a crisis develops or re-election strikes became evident in the testimony of Kathleen Wesley-Kitcheyan, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona. She lapsed into muffled tears when trying to describe the death of a grandson at 26, a rodeo champion who descended into drug use, human smuggling and, finally, a fatal car accident.

Afterward, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., praised her courage in rising to the hard occasion of public testimony. He walked her through the appalling litany of meth-related crimes, violent deaths, suicides and family dysfunction on Southwest reservations that share borders with Mexico, the source of a majority of the meth now supplying the United States, according to federal research.

Dorgan closed the hearing with the announcement that the Patriot Act will include a provision for anti-meth grants to tribes.