FROM THE ARCHIVE
A busy year for Congress on Indian affairs
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TUESDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2002

The Congressional committees with jurisdiction over tribal affairs took up dozens of bills and issues this year affecting Indian Country.

By any number of accounts, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee was one of the busiest in the 107th Congress. Although its offices were closed during last fall's anthrax scare, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), more than made up for the delay by holding 40 legislative and oversight hearings over an eight-month period starting in February.

"Never let it be said that I've denied any Native American from testifying before this committee," he said at one.

But despite the good intentions of many involved, not many bills heard by the committee were ready for the president's signature. The major exception was reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, a bill that puts control of federal housing funds in the hands of tribes.

Over at the the House Resources Committee, the record was similar for 2002. The panel held five major Indian affairs hearings, marked up at least a dozen bills affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives but only a small number have made it into law.

That's not always a bad thing. In the face of opposition from tribes and Democrats, a particularly controversial bill to terminate treaty rights in the state of Illinois is still suck at the House committee.

Limits on a trust fund accounting and federal recognition, too, were handed defeat thanks to tribal lobbying in the House and Senate.

On the other hand, Bush administration objections held up legislation favored by tribes. This was most evident on efforts to reform the management of Indian trust assets at the Department of Interior.

Amid ongoing threats of litigation, Congress did clear a pass a bill to extend talks over tribal trust funds. President Bush signed the bill in March but negotiations haven't borne fruit.

Discussions over reorganization of Indian trust duties also faltered. A joint federal-tribal task force broke down late last month after tribes and administration officials failed to agree on key legislative reforms.

"I just can't help but relate this to the federal corporate responsibility act where Congress and the President moved so quickly," National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall said of the state of affairs.

Both committees succeeded in advancing a number of bills only to see them held up on the floor. The Five Nations Citizens Land Reform Act was a notable example, derailed at the last minute by Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.

As expected, politicking affected the process. There were several cases where passage in the Democrat-led Senate doesn't mean the same for the GOP-controlled House, and vice versa.

Bills to encourage Native American participation in truck driving, improve Indian loan financing and approve water rights settlements await action in the House. On the Senate side, anonymous "holds" were placed on a bill to recognize a Native Hawaiian government.

The energy policy bill, which contains a number of provisions encouraging Indian Country development, fell prey to partisan squabbles over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Differences over the federal budget hindered passage of almost all of the appropriations bills.

Both chambers of Congress will return in mid-November after the elections to attempt to approve the budget bills and address other high-profile issues.

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee - http://indian.senate.gov
House Resources Committee - http://resourcescommittee.house.gov

Related Stories:
Five Nations land bill derailed (10/18)
Trust reform legislation sidetracked (10/17)
Senate renews Indian housing law (10/8)
Tribes enter 'new phase' in trust reform battle (10/03)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Trust accounting looms for tribes (03/20)

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