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Washington in brief

Vitter amendment on campaign financing again confronts tribes

The first emergency for tribes of the 110th Congress rang in the afternoon of Jan. 9, when it became apparent Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would renew an amendment to define tribal governments as corporations under the Federal Election Campaign Act.

The amendment came up as Congress debated an ethics and lobbying reform package, S. 1 in the Senate, which is a priority of the new Democratic majority. Vitter's amendment - ''To modify the application of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to Indian tribes'' - was offered as amendment 5 to amendment 3 of Senate Bill 1. As of Jan. 11, the text of the proposed amendment, on page S309 of the Senate record, was accessible through the Internet at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:s.1:.

It may be around for a while, according to a Capitol Hill senior staff member who was willing to speak on background but not for attribution. Just after the close of business hours on Jan. 10, the Senate voted to table Vitter's amendment. But the show of support for it - 40 votes in favor - surprised the Capitol Hill staffer, who said it suggested tribes have work to do in terms of educating members of the new Congress as to tribal standing under the Constitution. It also suggested that Vitter will try to attach it again to another bill.

Vitter tried to offer the amendment last year, but tribes successfully opposed it on the grounds that by limiting tribal campaign contributions, the amendment would curb Indian participation in the political process. Tribes again rallied against the amendment Jan. 9 and 10, according to Virginia Davis, associate counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.

Many tribes from around the country contacted their congressional members within about 24 hours of word that Vitter was circulating his amendment again, Davis said. NCAI sent a letter to all senators deploring the ''dangerous precedent'' of equating tribal governments with corporations. Davis added that while increased transparency of the campaign finance system is not objectionable to tribes, it should be handled separately from ethics and lobbying reform.

NCAI was confident throughout that enough members of Congress consider the bill unnecessary and inappropriate to ethics and lobbying reform, she said.

''This is nothing new from Senator Vitter.''

Vitter's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Impact aid case stumps Supreme Court

Supreme Court justices are accustomed to complex reasoning on the fine points of issues others can barely grasp as general principle, but it wasn't clear how well that experience would serve them as they confronted the facts in Zuni Public School District No. 89 et al. v. Department of Education et al.

''I have no idea what this statute means,'' said Justice Stephen Breyer at one point, referring to the law at issue in the case. ''I have never seen a case that is better fitted for an agency decision.''

The broader significance of the case involves the degree to which agency application of statutes will prevail as permissible constructions of law where laws are ambiguous.

The practical issue at hand is whether New Mexico school districts eligible for federal impact aid funding - funding meant to offset the limiting impact of tax-exempt federal lands, usually tribal or military lands, on education spending - receive less impact aid revenue than Congress intended because the Department of Education permitted the state to factor impact aid funds into its formula for distributing educational assistance funding statewide.

The narrow legal point is whether statutory language directs the state ''equalization'' of education funding formula to distribute funds on a ''per pupil'' basis or on a ''per school district'' basis. Among the background elements in the case are two conflicting formulas for distributing impact aid funds.

More funding is likely to go to all school districts in the state if the Department of Education prevails; more funding will go to the impact aid-eligible districts if the Zuni and Gallup-McKinley districts prevail. According to a summary by law professor Jay E. Grenig for the American Bar Association, ''Zuni and McKinley-Gallup argue that they are entitled to receive federal Impact Aid payments without offset against their state operational funding because the state of New Mexico does not qualify for ... Impact Aid.''

Near the end of the oral arguments Jan. 10, Breyer tried to develop a clarifying analogy in questioning one of the attorneys in the case. The attorney replied, not for the first time in the course of especially complex technical argumentation, that he didn't understand the question. ''Just forget it then,'' Breyer said, to a burst of laughter in the usually austere courtroom.

Wilderness status for ANWR would end Alaska oil dispute

In a sign of Democratic empowerment, a bill proposed in the House of Representatives Jan. 5 would define the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's north coast as wilderness, effectively sealing it off from oil drilling.

ANWR's 1.2 million acres of oil-rich coastal strip are already off-limits to energy development, but the ban has been repeatedly challenged by House Republicans who have pushed through proposals to explore the area for oil. The proposals have all died in the Senate, where a supermajority of 60 votes is usually needed to get controversial measures to an

up-or-down, simple majority vote.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has offered bills to protect ANWR in the past, but now feels the first Democratic majority chamber in the House since 1994 will advance the cause, according to an Associated Press report. A wilderness designation for ANWR would break the annual cycle of Republican attempts to repeal the drilling ban.

National energy politics have caught ANWR in their crossfire as pro-drilling factions have argued that the nation has pressing need of the vast stores of oil it can supply. But that particular movement may have passed its high noon as the environmental costs of fossil fuel consumption command more and more attention. Markey allied himself with the trend away from fossil fuel consumption in remarks quoted by the AP: ''Our addiction to oil is real [but] drilling in the refuge would amount to a declaration that we remain in denial about this addiction. There are some places in our world that are so rare and special, that we have a responsibility to protect them.''