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Pombo took on controversial topics in 108th Congress

The 108th Congress was a busy one for Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee.

The California Republican was a virtual unknown in Indian Country when he took over the panel in January 2003 after an election that saw the GOP increase its power in the House and Senate. At the time, many tribes were worried about their standing in Washington, D.C.

But those fears were dashed in the months to come. From trust reform to state-tribal relations, Pombo's background in ranching and property rights turned him into a prominent advocate for American Indian and Alaska Native issues, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by tribal leaders.

"Our optimism was proven right," Rachel Joseph, chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of California, recalled at the National Congress of American Indians conference in November 2003. "We have seen you exercise integrity and independence," she told him.

Over the past two years, Pombo hasn't shied from controversial matters as chairman of the panel with jurisdiction over Indian issues. In 2003, he stood up against powerful House Republican leaders who tried to force a settlement of the Cobell v. Norton Indian trust fund by inserting a rider in an appropriations bill.

"If there is a legislative resolution, it will be done in this committee, and it will not be done in the appropriations committee,"Pombo said at a July 2003 hearing to loud applause from tribal leaders.

Pombo and allies the Congressional Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of more than 100 lawmakers, were able to remove the proposal from the bill but another provision was inserted at the last minute. He still voted against his party to oppose the rider, which delayed a historical accounting of billions of dollars in Indian funds for a year.

In early 2004, Pombo helped the Cobell plaintiffs and the Bush administration select two mediators for the case. Although the talks have stalled, Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff, calls him a champion who has been "tireless" in his support for "bringing justice to individual Indian landowners after 100 years of government malfeasance."

Responding to concerns raised by tribal leaders, Pombo held a hearing this past May on the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the expansion the Office of Special Trustee. A support of self-governance, he questioned whether the overhaul was benefiting tribes and criticized the shift of funds to OST.

"If you're going to go through all reorganization, let's get something out of it," he told a top BIA official. Although Pombo is not on the Appropriations Committee, Congress later restored funds to BIA and cut back OST's share of the money.

Another controversial issue Pombo took on during the 108th Congress was federal recognition. At an April 2004 hearing on the BIA's slow-moving process, he criticized the agency for its "bureaucratic mess-up."

"It is just something that this committee is going to have to deal with in one way or another," he said. The panel later passed a bill sponsored by Pombo, to speed up the process for ten tribes who have been waiting more than 15 years for an answer from the BIA. The bill didn't clear the House or the Senate though.

Another hearing Pombo held drew heated debate on a bill to recognize the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Again, Pombo emphasized the need for Congress to take charge on an issue that has festered for more than a century.

"To the point whether this committee or the Congress has a right to recognize tribes -- we have the right in the Constitution," he told a crowded room. "I'm not sure the administration has the right anywhere. This is our responsibility."

Off-reservation casinos, another hot topic, also appeared on Pombo's agenda this past session. Three different hearings brought together Bush administration officials, tribal leaders and lawmakers to the table to discuss the growing trend. Little was resolved but Pombo noted the positive impacts of gaming.

"Because of gaming, some of the most poverty-stricken members of society have seen economic, social, cultural, and medical benefits never before imagined," he said. "This has meant new opportunities for jobs, housing, education, health care, and cultural preservation."

Beyond hearings, the committee was able to pass the American Indian Probate Reform Act, which Pombo supported. Tribal leaders have hailed the new law, which aims to slow the fractionation of Indian lands, as one of the most positive steps in trust reform in decades.

The committee also passed the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a priority of tribal leaders. But disputes with the Bush administration kept the bill from clearing Congress this year. Observers hope to raise the issue next year.

One bill the panel considered that did make it into law helped the Osage Nation of Oklahoma. The tribe is now able to set its own membership criteria instead of the one imposed by the federal government. The Eastern Band of Cherokees from North Carolina benefited from a land swap that the committee supported and which was bundled into an appropriations act that was signed into law. Tribes in California, hit by deadly fires in October 2003, gained support through a forest-thinning bill Pombo introduced.

In the 109th Congress, Pombo is slated to retain his chairmanship of the Resources Committee. In an update on the committee's achievements, he said he expects to focus on the energy policy legislation that will include an Indian section and will also open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia) is expected to stay on as ranking member. Pombo said he enjoys a close relationship with Rahall, a supporter of tribal issues.

House Resources Update:
Accomplishments in 108th Congress (December 2004)

Relevant Links:
Rep. Richard Pombo -
House Resources Committee -