Washington watch

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<i>Editorsí note: Indian Country Today introduces Washington Watch, a biweekly analysis of the activity of the federal government and its impact in Indian country. </i>

The modest American experiment in one-party government ended Nov. 7 as voters issued a reality check to the quixotic, self-crippling Republican quest for a permanent majority in Congress. The electorate voted Democrats into majorities of the House of Representatives, the Senate, state legislatures and governorships.

Republicans immediately began to talk one another down from the ledges, promising better days ahead. Presumably, the 2008 presidential elections are those days. Early indications are that this particular lullaby will temper the Republicans until then.

On the other hand, Democrats, after years in the minority, showed all the signs of astonishment ñ to the point of shell shock ñ as they grappled with being thrust into the heat of the spotlight. It wonít be easy to wrap their minds around a legislative agenda for a nation of 300 million people, on pressing issues that affect billions more worldwide. It would be a good start if two months from now, at the outset of the 110th Congress, they could present a unified leadership. As doubts about that continue to mount, the Democrats would be well served to follow the advice of the wisest heads in their caucus and reject the promptings of the president for an extended lame duck session. It is the last advice politicians in Washington can be expected to take.

Such are the throes of the election cycle. New lawmakers are elected to serve the priority issues of the electorate; the issues of the incumbents may get short shrift. This atmosphere breeds arrogance and ill will in both parties.

But in Indian country, itís not the reality of the election cycle. The issues remain similar, often the very same, from one Congress to the next. The goal of Native-issue advocates on Capitol Hill is to fit standing issues into the new configuration of priorities, personalities and political ideologies that come in with every new Congress. Given the magnitude of the recent realignment, this task will be much more challenging.

The instinct so far has been to gravitate toward the center of the political spectrum, on an already well-worn theory that voters cast their ballots for center-right candidates ñ for relatively conservative Democrats, in other words. And indeed it does seem accurate to suggest, as so many have, that the moderate center has reasserted itself at the expense of classic liberal interest group politics. But few commentators have given weight to an equally striking feature of the election returns ñ voters and their candidates are wholly fed up with politics of non-response, evasion of accountability and face-saving. The center will not hold if it can be interpreted as non-responsive to that strong a mandate in the electorate.

Itís a new look in contemporary American politics: center-right political majorities that canít thrive without dissent but canít be its captive, either. Itís a political profile appropriate to its time, a time of transition ñ transition out of Iraq and away from one-party dominance, global myopia and our own homegrown brands of fundamentalism. The stakes are high. They are right, those who say that for all the invective we can expect in the next two years, the party that transitions successfully will still be standing once the votes are counted in the next presidential election. If it is the Democratic Party, a platform for dominance will have been established. Between now and 2010, Democrats will defend a dozen fewer seats in Congress than the GOP. And with an incumbent president behind them, Democrats could go into 2012 with real hopes that the electorate could give them what the Republican Party tried to take for itself through Abramoff-style racketeering on Capitol Hill: a long-term majority.

Weíll have to wait and see about all that. For now itís worthy of careful note that the political setting outlined above bodes well for Indian country. Native people are the permanent voice of dissent in America, but they have also been perpetually cast by media and politicians alike in one-note roles ñ desperately needy as a result of historical injustice, or undeservedly wealthy by way of gaming, to name only two of those roles. But politics of dissent at the center must by definition develop and accept a more complex storyboard.

Now is the time for Indian countryís informed consent to strengthen its natural allies by bringing solutions to the center, instead of mainly identifying needs and leveling demands at the margins of policy-making. A profound initiative is already under way in that direction as the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Gaming Association, gifted Indian-issue lobbyists and others pursue a standing Native American Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives.

At the same time, no one in the current political climate will be able to marginalize tribes for leading with their chin on crucial issues that never got a proper response from the late Republican majorities. NCAI has already issued a list of them in its post-election analysis, including the Section 1813 study on tribal rights of way, a tax-exempt bonding authority bill, Section 906 of the new law on pensions, and reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Should any of these national issues show early success, tribes should be careful not to lose their balance on local issues. For now and the near future, they will be best served in the political realm by the complex principle of dissent at the center.

<i>Editorsí note: Indian Country Today introduces Washington Watch, a biweekly analysis of the activity of the federal government and its impact in Indian country. </i>The modest American experiment in one-party government ended Nov. 7 as voters issued a reality check to the quixotic, self-crippling Republican quest for a permanent majority in Congress. The electorate voted Democrats into majorities of the House of Representatives, the Senate, state legislatures and governorships.Republicans immediately began to talk one another down from the ledges, promising better days ahead. Presumably, the 2008 presidential elections are those days. Early indications are that this particular lullaby will temper the Republicans until then.On the other hand, Democrats, after years in the minority, showed all the signs of astonishment ñ to the point of shell shock ñ as they grappled with being thrust into the heat of the spotlight. It wonít be easy to wrap their minds around a legislative agenda for a nation of 300 million people, on pressing issues that affect billions more worldwide. It would be a good start if two months from now, at the outset of the 110th Congress, they could present a unified leadership. As doubts about that continue to mount, the Democrats would be well served to follow the advice of the wisest heads in their caucus and reject the promptings of the president for an extended lame duck session. It is the last advice politicians in Washington can be expected to take.Such are the throes of the election cycle. New lawmakers are elected to serve the priority issues of the electorate; the issues of the incumbents may get short shrift. This atmosphere breeds arrogance and ill will in both parties.But in Indian country, itís not the reality of the election cycle. The issues remain similar, often the very same, from one Congress to the next. The goal of Native-issue advocates on Capitol Hill is to fit standing issues into the new configuration of priorities, personalities and political ideologies that come in with every new Congress. Given the magnitude of the recent realignment, this task will be much more challenging.The instinct so far has been to gravitate toward the center of the political spectrum, on an already well-worn theory that voters cast their ballots for center-right candidates ñ for relatively conservative Democrats, in other words. And indeed it does seem accurate to suggest, as so many have, that the moderate center has reasserted itself at the expense of classic liberal interest group politics. But few commentators have given weight to an equally striking feature of the election returns ñ voters and their candidates are wholly fed up with politics of non-response, evasion of accountability and face-saving. The center will not hold if it can be interpreted as non-responsive to that strong a mandate in the electorate.Itís a new look in contemporary American politics: center-right political majorities that canít thrive without dissent but canít be its captive, either. Itís a political profile appropriate to its time, a time of transition ñ transition out of Iraq and away from one-party dominance, global myopia and our own homegrown brands of fundamentalism. The stakes are high. They are right, those who say that for all the invective we can expect in the next two years, the party that transitions successfully will still be standing once the votes are counted in the next presidential election. If it is the Democratic Party, a platform for dominance will have been established. Between now and 2010, Democrats will defend a dozen fewer seats in Congress than the GOP. And with an incumbent president behind them, Democrats could go into 2012 with real hopes that the electorate could give them what the Republican Party tried to take for itself through Abramoff-style racketeering on Capitol Hill: a long-term majority.Weíll have to wait and see about all that. For now itís worthy of careful note that the political setting outlined above bodes well for Indian country. Native people are the permanent voice of dissent in America, but they have also been perpetually cast by media and politicians alike in one-note roles ñ desperately needy as a result of historical injustice, or undeservedly wealthy by way of gaming, to name only two of those roles. But politics of dissent at the center must by definition develop and accept a more complex storyboard.Now is the time for Indian countryís informed consent to strengthen its natural allies by bringing solutions to the center, instead of mainly identifying needs and leveling demands at the margins of policy-making. A profound initiative is already under way in that direction as the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Gaming Association, gifted Indian-issue lobbyists and others pursue a standing Native American Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives.At the same time, no one in the current political climate will be able to marginalize tribes for leading with their chin on crucial issues that never got a proper response from the late Republican majorities. NCAI has already issued a list of them in its post-election analysis, including the Section 1813 study on tribal rights of way, a tax-exempt bonding authority bill, Section 906 of the new law on pensions, and reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.Should any of these national issues show early success, tribes should be careful not to lose their balance on local issues. For now and the near future, they will be best served in the political realm by the complex principle of dissent at the center.