Mark Trahant: A messy Congress might actually work for tribes

A new coalition? A group of Republicans working with Democrats could be good news for Indian Country in this Congress. Photo by Caleb Smith / Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) / Flickr

This messy Congress might be able to actually govern
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

When I was a young reporter the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho went through a crisis. Four delegates of the seven-member council were recalled; that meant that the governing body could not get a quorum to move forward. We joked then about how rough it was at “Fort Recall.” But the politics eventually resolved and tribal government continued.

Over the years this same narrative surfaces from time to time in Indian Country. One side or the other refuses to do business and the process stops. Enterprises, even casinos, are shuttered and tribal paychecks get interrupted and the situation just gets “messy.”

When I only covered tribal councils I thought this situation was unique to Indian Country. I wondered why we were so divided, why we could not conduct basic business?

That’s funny now.

Because I realize that our situations — messy as they seemed at the time — do get resolved. The divisions end and folks move on. And they are not unusual.

This messy way of doing business surfaces in all sorts of governments — counties, state legislatures, and, of course, Congress. (Not to mention countries.) It’s human nature.

Our current Congress is human nature amplified.

House Republicans have been promising to strip funding from the Department of Homeland Security to reverse President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. But the House doesn’t get to call all the shots — the Senate has a say, too. And in the Senate it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. That means if Democrats stick together they can prevent legislation from even getting a vote.

So Speaker of the House John Boehner attempted to patch this difference over with a three-week funding bill — only to have that idea voted down by his own party members.

The end result on March 3 was the speaker let the “clean” funding bill come to the House, the same measure that passed the Senate, and that captured enough support from seventy-five Republicans and all of the Democrats and became law.

On CBS News’ Face the Nation, Speaker of the House John Boehner put it in perspective when he was asked if he liked his job. “Most days,” he said. “Friday wasn’t all that fun, but most days. It was just messy,” he said. “And I’m not into messy. I enjoy being in a legislative body. I enjoy all the personalities. And I’ve got a lot of them.”

But do these personalities change the structure of Congress? Will it take a combination of united Democrats and a smaller band of Republicans to actually govern the country? This is not unprecedented. It happens in state legislatures from time to time.

One of the key brokers in all of this is Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, and a member of the Chickasaw Tribe. He told The Associated Press recently that similar coalitions might be required for other tough battles ahead, including a debate about increasing the nation’s debt limit. This issue requires action because the government (meaning Congress) has already spent the money. Now it’s only a question of paying it back, not new spending.

The Bipartisan Policy Center says on March 16 the Treasury Department will begin using what’s called “extraordinary measures” to meet those obligations. And Congress will need to act before the fourth quarter so the government can continue to write checks for Veterans’ benefits, Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt, and to pay other bills.

So a governing coalition is required. Cole said one way to think about Boehner is that he saved the hard-core Republicans from themselves because he frees them to take absolute positions without the actuall consequences of governing. (That’s tasked to the 75 Republicans and House Democrats.)

It’s hard to tell if this sort of governing coalition will continue to work. It would be good for Indian Country, no, great for Indian Country, if it could. Indian Country’s best allies from both parties are in this congressional majority.

And if this coalition doesn’t work? Well, then we will see what messy really looks like.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Join the Conversation