Washington in brief

Ney bows out of re-election as party cites Abramoff ties

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, has decided to drop out of the race for a seventh term in the House of Representatives, bowing to pressure from Republican Party leadership. The GOP feared that Ney’s association with criminal ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff would render him unelectable in November, when Democrats and Republicans will face the voters in a contest for majority control in the House of Representatives. Republican Party leaders consider Ney’s seat more defensible for the GOP without him in the race.

Ney himself gave family as the reason for his decision, stating in a release, “I can no longer put them through this ordeal.” Ney is mentioned as “Representative No. 1” in four guilty pleas generated by the Abramoff scandal. Among the plea-bargainers is Neil Volz, Ney’s former chief of staff.

Suspicion centers on Ney’s alleged acceptance of gifts in return for official actions, several of them involving gaming tribes. The pattern established in public documents suggests that on occasion, Abramoff promised results to his client tribes, then turned to Ney or his staff for official actions to the tribes that he, Abramoff, was delivering. A Senate Committee on Indian Affairs report on the Abramoff debacle cast doubts on the veracity of Ney’s responses to committee questioning. But Ney has denied any wrongdoing and no charges have been filed against him.

According to the Washington Post, which first reported the story, Ney’s decision not to campaign for office followed a caution from House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that a lobbying career in Washington would not await him if he lost the November election.

Absent any decision to the contrary, Ney will remain in Congress through the current calendar year.

Notwithstanding his Abramoff-related woes, Ney has continued to support American Indian and Native issues in Congress. On July 12, he addressed a gathering of Native-language advocates at the National Museum of the American Indian. More recently, as chairman of the subcommittee on housing of the Financial Services Committee in the House, he chaired a field hearing on Native housing in Camp Verde, Ariz. He is also helping to move a House bill for Native Hawaiian home ownership.

Christopher Boesen, president of Tiber Creek Associates of Capitol Hill, said he hopes Ney will stay engaged throughout the current 109th Congress. “Frankly, I expect him to. He’s that kind of a guy.”

As a Native-issue lobbyist on housing, Boesen added that Ney hasn’t backed Indian and Native Hawaiian housing as a political gesture, but because he believes in it.

“I always thought he was a good guy and anyone who got near Abramoff was in trouble.”

Health care

reauthorization gets Burns support

The appropriator-in-chief of IHS funding has signed on to a bill that would reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee that funds IHS and BIA programs, joined eight co-sponsors of the bill following a videoconference conferral with Montana and Wyoming tribal leaders. The leaders requested the senator’s support for the bill, S. 1057 in the Senate.

“We face serious health challenges in Indian country,” Burns said in a statement released by his office. “Dwindling funds negatively impact the necessary preventative care that tribes work so hard to provide, and that hurts everyone in the long run. My tribal leaders asked me to help pass this legislation, and I will.”

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act will remain in effect through the appropriations process whether S. 1057 is enacted into law or not. But many tribes and Native organizations, including the National Indian Health Board, the National Council of Urban Indian Health and the National Congress of American Indians, have spent years between them campaigning for reauthorization. Congress last reauthorized the 1976 Indian Health Care Improvement Act in 1992. Given advances in the health care sector and changes in the health profile of Indian country, advocates contend reauthorization will modernize health care among Native people by addressing elder care, in-home care, mental health, diabetes and health care hiring with a new flexibility.

S. 1057 is before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. A related bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 5312, has passed the House Resources Committee. But Energy and Commerce is the next committee of jurisdiction in the House that the bill must get through to become law. At press time, the latest posting on the subject on the National Indian Health Board Web site stated that Energy and Commerce staff considered the bill “not on their radar screen,” by all conventional standards a difficult predicament for any complex bill in the late stages of a Congress foreshortened by November elections.

In addition, the presidential administration has given no public indication that it supports the bill any more than it did at this time in the last Congress, when its concerns about federal liability for alternative medicinal practices, among other things, kept the bill from coming to a vote of the full Senate.

More compensation

may be due Missouri River tribes

Despite the concerns of committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that it could set a precedent by diverging from previous methodology for arriving at compensation amounts, a bill to provide further compensation to the Lower Brule and Crow Creek Sioux Tribes for damages associated with Missouri River dams passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Aug. 2.

The flooding sustained by at least seven tribes at the construction of dams along the Missouri River in the 1940s and 1950s is universally acknowledged. Six of them have received compensation settlements, and three of those are considered “final and full.” But the compensation provided the tribes by Congress has been regularly debated, most recently in the hearings around Senate Bill 374, the Tribal Parity Act. The methodology of formulas for arriving at settlement sums has been at the heart of the debate over compensation.

If enacted, S. 374 would provide “final and full” compensation for Lower Brule and Crow Creek claims. The settlement would bring their total compensation to parity with that of other Missouri River tribes. The bill has been sponsored by South Dakota Sens. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, and Republican John Thune.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he expects the bill to be stalled by a hold on the Senate floor (any senator can “hold” a bill for any reason). In the meantime, he added, senators should look at the compensation paid to each of the tribes that lost land, communities and infrastructure to the Pick-Sloan dam project.

“As we report it out and go to the floor, my sense is we’ve got a hold on the floor,” Dorgan said. “Before moving again, we ought to take a look at, what are the other circumstances for the other tribes in that Pick-Sloan plan? Because I – you know, we’ve had the tribes come to us one at a time saying that there needs to be another consideration here of a payout. It is true, it is certainly the case, that most of these tribes were the recipients of inadequate payments when that Pick-Sloan project was developed. That’s certainly the case. And so there has been a need to provide additional compensation. And I believe that’s what the two tribes with respect to S. 374 have said to this committee, and the evidence suggests that they have a pretty strong case.

“But I believe, however, we ought to take a look at the other tribes as well, so that as we consider this perhaps we can determine whether all tribes have been fairly compensated, so that we don’t have to revisit this every couple of years. They deserve fairness and justice, and let’s do it in consideration of all the tribes on the Pick-Sloan plan.”

Upon enactment, according to amended numbers supplied by the offices of Thune and Johnson, the bill would increase the Lower Brule settlement from $39.3 million to $129.8 million. The Crow Creek settlement would increase from $27.5 million to $69.2 million.

Another Johnson-Thune offering, S. 1535, would permit compensation to individual tribal landowners out of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe trust fund established for Pick-Sloan restitution. “While we can never erase the damage to the tribes and tribal members caused by Pick-Sloan project, these bills go a long way to correct the harm that was inflicted almost 50 years ago,” Johnson said.

Lumbee recognition gets half a loaf

The same day he withheld from committee vote a bill to settle the Cobell v. Kempthorne trust funds litigation, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sent a message as to why it is not always timely to pass a bill out of committee.

The occasion was the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing of Aug. 2, which took up the Lumbee Recognition Act, S. 660 in the Senate. The Lumbee seek federal recognition from Congress, rather than through the appointed process for recognizing tribes. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr of North Carolina, fellow Republicans of McCain’s, have pushed hard at previous hearings to move the bill through committee. Perhaps they’ve pushed a little too hard if Burr’s persistent questioning of witnesses for and against, often accompanied by a show of gratitude towards McCain, can be taken to imply impatience from the chair.

On Aug. 2, Burr pushed a little harder still, arguing against an amendment from Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., that would have directed the Interior Department to expedite consideration of the Lumbee application under the federal recognition process. Thomas agreed to a voice vote and McCain, the committee chairman, called it in favor of the amendment. Burr asked for a roll call vote. With most of the committee members absent and voting by proxy, the Thomas amendment failed the roll call vote with eight opposed and six in favor.

McCain then addressed a commentary to “my colleagues,” delivered straight at Burr: “In all the years I’ve been on this committee, most everything is done unanimously because of the nature of the issues that we address. So I would urge my friends from North Carolina to try to get the support of the other members of the committee, because I don’t see this legislation moving frankly with that kind of close vote coming out of the committee. A little straight talk: You’ve got some work to do if you want to get this done through the entire Congress of the United States.”

He then took a voice vote of the committee to report the bill favorably to the full Senate, where it is likely to die on the floor. But its passage through the Senate committee of jurisdiction will become part of the legislative record.