WASHINGTON - When Congress began its summer recess on July 23, the intent
was to stay out of Washington for all of six weeks as the Democrats and
Republicans hold their presidential nominating conventions. During the
recess, lawmakers who are up for re-election will take to the campaign
trail in their own behalf, and others will campaign for their party
candidates as the presidential election approaches. Back in Washington,
depending on the priorities in their particular congressional office, staff
will support those campaigns while working on legislation still to be
contested before the 108th Congress adjourns at the end of the year.
But these plans bowed to shifting political winds when the National
Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States issued its final
report - the 9/11 Commission Report. After stating that the report would
not alter the recess schedule, congressional leaders quickly decided
otherwise. According to a good deal of commentary, lawmakers came to fear
the appearance of a slack response to the wide-ranging indictment of U.S.
governance in its most disastrous failure, at least since Pearl Harbor, to
fulfill its primary function of protecting the nation. Hearings will be
held in August, between the two nominating conventions.
Congress recessed with the passage of a $417.5 billion defense spending
measure. But when it reconvenes in September, it will face a withering
agenda of domestic bills, including the other 12 spending bills that make
up the annual federal budget. The fiscal year 2005 budget is due to be in
place Oct. 1, when agencies would begin drawing against it. Last year,
however, Congress passed continuing appropriations when it couldn't agree
on domestic spending, and the official annual budget didn't get approved
until the end of January, with one fiscal quarter already gone.
It is impossible to predict whether the political considerations of a
presidential election year will hasten or delay approval of the fiscal year
2005 federal budget.
Following the November elections, Congress is likely to convene a "lame
duck" session, so-called because some lawmakers who have lost their offices
in November will lack any influence with fellow legislators.
At present, most of the Indian-specific bills in the Senate are under an
anonymous hold, as allowed by Senate rules. Most other bills are also under
anonymous holds, which can be placed on any bill by any Senator. From
there, senators will negotiate for favor toward their own bills, often by
relinquishing holds on someone else's.
A bill that had not made it through the committee structure to a pending
floor vote by the July recess had little chance of becoming law during the
108th Congress, according to congressional staff. Exceptions might arise
for bills with the full backing of the White House, congressional
leadership and pertinent federal agencies, as well as a consensus of
urgency in Congress, but such bills are rarities.
CAPITAL FORMATION BILL GETS AN AIRING
Over the years, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell has made several attempts to
move a bill encouraging Indian capital formation mechanisms through
Congress. Accordingly, its latest version was the subject of one of the
last Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearings he will chair. True to an
essential theme of his 22 years in Congress, he decried the "forced
dependency" of tribes but said that it will linger until they have legal
institutions for developing their own skills and resources, such as the
Indian financial organization set forth in Senate Bill 519.
The Colorado Republican retires after the 108th Congress. He expressed the
hope that other lawmakers would take up the cause of S. 519 in the 109th
Congress. Barring surprises, John McCain, R-Ariz., will assume the
committee chair after Campbell steps down.
Prior to the hearing, the committee reported two bills to the full Senate.
S. 2301 concerns tribal fish and wildlife management, and S. 2382 would
provide tribes and Native peoples with flexible block grants to improve
their telecommunications skills, capacities and Internet connectivity.
PRESIDENT SIGNS TRIBAL WILDFIRE PROTECTION BILL
President George W. Bush signed a tribal forest protection act into law
July 22, finalizing a measure that will assist tribes in protecting their
homelands from wildfires that start in adjacent federal forests. Because
the law, H.R. 3846 from its origin in the House of Representatives,
provides for land restoration projects such as the "thinning" of ground
cover in the forests, among other fire-prevention efforts, it is expected
to create jobs for tribal members as well. Adjacent rangelands are also
covered in the bill.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Resources,
introduced the bill and stayed with it after it was stripped from a
national version of the bill in the Senate last year. In a release the day
of the president's signing, Pombo credited Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.,
for working closely with him on this year's successful effort for tribes.
Feinstein introduced the companion bill that passed the Senate after the
June 21 House approval of Pombo's offering.
Wildfires that began on nearby federal lands engulfed 20 reservations in
California and Arizona last year.
"As another devastating fire season is plaguing the West, the Congress and
President Bush have acted again to protect Americans and their lands from
the threat of catastrophic wildfire," Pombo said. "The Healthy Forests
Restoration Act [of 2003] focused needed attention and assistance on
serious problems concerning forest health, particularly the explosive
build-up of hazardous fuels in federal forests. We emphasized community
participation and protection in that bill, and that is exactly what we are
doing for Native American tribes in this new legislation."