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USET makes an impact on Washington

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WASHINGTON - Lobbying season officially began in the Capitol Feb. 3 as about 500 leaders of most of the federally recognized tribes east of the Mississippi arrived in town for the annual United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) impact week. Delegates were confident in Congressional support, after several dramatic victories last year, but deeply frustrated by the way they were covered in segments of the mass media.

Preoccupied by impending war with Iraq and the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Washington media largely ignored the event, but USET delegates concentrated on their prime audience, members of Congress and federal bureaucrats. Deepening the impact, about 80 high school students from 18 USET tribes followed in their footsteps, as part of a Close-Up Foundation program to introduce youth to the workings of Washington. While USET met in the richly appointed Marriott Crystal Gateway Hotel in Arlington, Va., the Close-Up youths worked out of the much less luxurious Days Inn a short way down the street.

USET resolutions, still in preparation at press time, covered the range from highway maintenance funding to inclusion of tribal governments in Homeland Security planning. A series of speakers from Congress, both elected members and staff, previewed a session they expected to produce a series of small gains for tribal sovereignty, and with luck, no major attacks.

In one of a series of brief talks to the open meeting of the USET board, U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, projected confidence that Indian interests would prevail in Congress. He recounted the episode last July when opponents of tribal positions tried an end run around his House Resources Committee, which handles most Indian issues, and turned to the House Appropriations Committee to slip two sleeper measures into the Interior Appropriations Bill.

One measure, backed by the Interior Department, would have limited the scope of the "historical accounting" for the Trust Fund debacle. Another, written by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., would have diverted money from the BIA budget for a study commission on the effectiveness of federal Indian programs. Wolf, a long-time opponent of gambling, has lately turned his focus on Indian gaming, said Kildee, and his amendment was widely seen as hostile to Indian interests.

In spite of some people who urged caution in taking on the powerful Appropriations Committee, the Native American Caucus geared up literally overnight to fight the measures, Kildee said. "Staff people were working until 3:30 and 4 in the morning to get things ready," he said.

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When the measures came to a vote in a late-night debate, they lost by a decisive margin, more than 100 votes each. "It sent a great message to the Appropriations Committee," said Kildee. "One Appropriations member walked back and told his staff, 'Don't you ever lead me this way again.'"

Kildee said the Caucus would build on this victory in working to put tribes on equal footing with state governments in the upcoming tax bill. He predicted that the result would make it easier for tribal governments to issue tax-exempt bonds, which would save significant sums in interest costs. One target of the Caucus, he said, would be IRS regulations restricting the kinds of tribal projects eligible for this type of financing.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., also a House Resources and Native American Caucus member, waited in the wings as Kildee spoke and then thanked his colleague for promoting him to vice-chairman of the Caucus. Pallone criticized Interior officials for trying to create what he called a false impression of Congressional support for its BIA reorganization. He said that Interior failed to consult House Resources and Caucus members when it went to Appropriations Committee leaders for authority to reallocate budget funds for the reorganization.

The USET board pondered the beginnings of another potential controversy in hearing out the new members of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), the federal regulatory agency, and then Mark Van Norman, executive director for the National Indian Gaming Association, the trade group. Philip N. Hogen, the new chairman of NIGC, urged a revision of the fee structure that provides the bulk of the commission's budget. Producing an organizational chart showing a number of vacant positions in red, he pleaded for an end to the $8 million cap on fees paid by tribal casinos. Even though the most rapid growth was coming in California, he asked for support from the eastern tribes so that the commission would have the capacity to avoid a "regulatory disaster" that would hurt the reputation of all gaming tribes.

With a two-week timeframe to change the cap, however, Hogen said he was on a "whirlwind tour of consultation with the tribes."

Van Norman sounded a slow-down, however. He called for further consultation on an issue that could affect tribal sovereignty.

The question period after their presentations gave a forum for deeply held frustration over recent negative news "exposes" on tribal gaming. Several speakers expressed their personal hurt over a TIME Magazine series that they called distorted and irresponsible. Van Norman and NIGA staffers Carla Nicholas and Victoria Wright later told Indian Country Today that they were planning a public relations initiative to highlight the undisputed benefits brought by Indian gaming.